Spice Healer

From Scientific American:Haldi

Recently a number of natural compounds–such as resveratrol from red wine and omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil–have begun to receive close scrutiny because preliminary research suggests they might treat and prevent disease inexpensively with few side effects. Turmeric, an orange-yellow powder from an Asian plant, Curcuma longa, has joined this list. No longer is it just an ingredient in vindaloos and tandooris that, since ancient times, has flavored food and prevented spoilage.

A chapter in a forthcoming book, for instance, describes the biologically active components of turmeric–curcumin and related compounds called curcuminoids–as having antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties, with potential activity against cancer, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and other chronic maladies. And in 2005 nearly 300 scientific and technical papers referenced curcumin in the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed database, compared with about 100 just five years earlier.

Scientists who sometimes jokingly label themselves curcuminologists are drawn to the compound both because of its many possible valuable effects in the body and its apparent low toxicity.

More here. (Thanks to Laura Claridge Oppenheimer).

A Case of the Mondays: Religion is Like Race

A lot of secularists mistakenly believe that religious discrimination is somehow different from racial discrimination. The tipping point that drove me to write this article was reading about Sam Harris’s beliefs about the acceptability of denying Muslims basic civil rights. Since being religious is a choice, the argument goes, there’s no real analogy between religion and race.

But in fact, religion is very much like skin color, in that it’s an ethnic marker. Endogamous cultural groups can be distinguished on the basis of language, color, national origin, or creed. In the US, the difference between blacks and whites is about color while this between Hispanics and Anglos is a combination of color and language. In Bosnia, the difference between Muslims, Serbs, and Croats was entirely religious, as is the difference between Sunnis and Shi’as in Iraq. The exact nature of the difference rarely matters; there’s no material difference between distinctions based on religion and distinctions based on skin color.

Like the other ethnic markers, religion is intimately connected to group identities. Even apostates often have some cultural connection to religious customs: secular Jews hold Passover Seders ex-Christian atheists usually celebrate Christmas, and secular Muslims in Turkey tend not to eat pork. Ontologically, Stephen Roberts made sense when he said, “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” Sociologically, he didn’t, because a person’s religious identity tends to be independent of what religion he adheres to. This religious identity is weaker among secular people, but it doesn’t disappear entirely, as Bosnians discovered in the early 1990s; analogously, linguistic identity is weaker among polyglots than among monoglots, and racial identity is weaker among people whose social circle is racially mixed than among people whose social circle is racially uniform.

And politically, it’s easier to understand conflicts when one regards religion as just another ethnic variable. The Bosnian genocide involved peoples who differed only in religious markers, but proceeded like any non-religious ethnic conflict. Al Qaida provided aid to the Muslims, while Russia sided with the Eastern Orthodox Serbs; however, that religious sense of kinship was hardly different from the pan-Germanic and pan-Slavic movements that fueled World War One. Of Iraq’s three constituent groups, two are distinguished based solely on ethnicity and language, while two are distinguished based solely on religion.

Further, group distinctions can morph over time. European anti-Semitism began as exclusively religious in the Middle Ages. As Jews accumulated money in the late Middle Ages, it became increasingly a class issue, and then, during the Enlightenment, focused more on culture and less on religion. By the late 19th century, it became racial, reflecting an overall increase in the prevalence of racial pseudoscience in Europe; it has had a strong racial component ever since. But that story will reveal very little about the exact ways anti-Semites hurt Jews. A more instructive way of characterizing it is that anti-Semitism has been populist for most of its history, but was systemic between roughly 1890 and 1945.

The artificial division of religious and nonreligious distinctions seems by and large restricted to the secular West. It’s a mistake endemic to atheist activists, like Harris or Richard Dawkins, that religious conflicts will disappear if atheism only gains more credence. In fact, although religious fundamentalism has been a motivating force behind Western supremacist views, the Western elites justify supremacist views based entirely on secular arguments. Samuel Huntington doesn’t say that the West is special because the Reformation’s theology is the best of all the theologies of major religions and denominations; he says the West is special because of its mix of human rights, democracy, and separation of church and state.

Ultimately, this is a conflation of two different dimensions of religious distinctions. The first, the one between secularism and fundamentalism, is what is most familiar to people who are only familiar with one religion, such as most Westerners. That distinction is similar to distinctions between liberals and conservatives, and has very little to do with ethnic markers. But there’s another distinction, that between different religions. Plural religious societies, such as those of India or Iraq or even those Islamic societies that are in regular contact with the West, tend to emphasize that distinction instead.

This conflation allows a lot of people to hold beliefs about religious groups whose racial equivalents are too racists for any member of the Western elite to fathom. For example, take the idea that Islam is inherently degrading to women. In a way it is, but so is Christianity; the implicit idea is that Christianity is superior to Islam, because Christianity has been less successful at defending its misogynist traditions than Islam. Arguments rarely get more self-contradictory than that, but the conflation of cross-religious differences with the difference between secularity and religion effectively masks that contradiction.

But in fact, there’s little difference between distinctions of religion and distinctions of language or race. Different religions have different practices, but that hardly merits a special mention, in light of the different customs of different nationalities or cultural groups. In particular, discrimination and conflict have very little to do with whether the bone of contention is religious or national. Very rarely, religious groups will wage an ideological religious battle, as in the Crusades. More frequently, religion will be a proxy for something else—nationalism in the cases of Al Qaida, Israel, and Palestine; racism in the case of Western anti-Muslim attitudes; and a combination of racism and class consciousness in India.

The common secularist belief that every religious conflict can be analyzed in the same way as American-style culture wars is just not true. Most people never choose their own religion in the same way secularists chose to be nonreligious. In practice, religion works more like skin color than like the secular/religious spectrum; holding supremacist views about one religion is racism; and massacring people of a different religion is genocide.

Random Walks: Shuffling the Cards

FoolPast, present and future are literally in the cards for the characters that populate Charles Williams‘ 1932 novel The Greater Trumps. Curmudgeonly, perpetually dissatisfied Lothair Coningsby, a Warden of Lunacy having a bit of a mid-life crisis, has inherited a collection of rare decks of cards from a late close friend. Among them is a hand-painted deck of Italian tarot cards, dated circa mid-15th century, that turns out to be very special indeed.

It is the original tarot deck, and corresponds to miniature golden figures that move as if by magic across a golden plate, in an intricate interlocking pattern that seems to defy human understanding. Each figure corresponds to a card in the deck: four suits, each with 10 numbered cards, and four “court cards” (Page, Knight, Queen and King), plus the so-called “Greater Trumps,” or Major Arcana. In the midst of all those figures is The Fool, or Nought, which anchors the entire deck and yet doesn’t seem to move at all (or does it, if one only has eyes to see)?

But this particular tarot deck isn’t just about the symbolism; it possesses real power over the traditional four elements (earth, air, fire and water). As Henry Lee, the gypsy-blooded fiance of Nancy Coningsby explains, “It’s said that the shuffling of the cards is the earth, and the pattering of the cards is the rain, and the beating of the cards is the wind, and the pointing of the cards is the fire.” (Indeed, when he and Nancy put the cards to the test, her shuffling does indeed produce actual dirt.) “That’s of the four suits. But the Greater Trumps, it’s said, are the meaning of all process and the measure of the ever-lasting dance.” The Fool is the key to understanding that great cosmic dance, enabling the one with that comprehension to predict the future based on the present. Henry Lee and his grandfather desperately want to have that power, and their desire fuels the events that ultimately unfold — first with catastrophic, then with sublime, results.

Williams is hardly a household name in today’s literary circles. He is one of the lesser known members of the so-called Oxford Inklings. (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are the most famous members.) He was forced to leave University College London before completing his degree for financial reasons, but that didn’t keep him from pursuing a life of letters, and eventually acquiring an honorary master’s degree for his trouble.

He worked (initially as a proofreading assistant) at Oxford University Press from 1908 until his death in 1945, work which apparently left him plenty of time to write. In addition to his novels, he wrote Arthurian poetry, numerous works of literary criticism, and The Figure of Beatrice, an analysis of the Divine Comedy that is still cited by today’s Dante scholars. When the Press moved from London to Oxford after the outbreak of World War II, Williams began attending the Inkling meetings on a regular basis, getting their input on his final novel, All Hallow’s Eve, and having the privilege of hearing some of the earlier drafts of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy-in-progress.

Like Lewis, Williams was a devout Christian, but his belief system had a few odd quirks, with more than a hint of mysticism and a fascination with classical philosophy and pagan myths. That pagan/mystic bent infuses all his novels, in which supernatural forces routinely impinge on ordinary daily lives, transforming his characters in the process. Doppelgangers, succubi, ghosts, palmistry, the Holy Grail, African tribal lore, and the Platonic archetypes all make appearances in Williams’ fiction. He briefly belonged to the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, an offshoot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn — which is probably where he acquired his familiarity with the tarot cards that play such a central role in The Greater Trumps. (The Golden Dawn established most of the various “meanings” associated with modern tarot cards.)Charleswilliams_1

Tarot decks have a murky, frequently disputed history; the Wikipedia entry is littered with missing citations and cautionary notes. But the bits of history Williams relates in The Greater Trumps is fairly accurate, considering their mysterious provenance. While there are many legends that purport to tie tarot decks with ancient Egypt, there is no reliable evidence for this. Historians generally agree that generic playing cards first appeared in Europe in the late 14th century, probably migrating over from Islamic Spain, and there is certainly a tradition of using more traditional decks for divination purposes. Tarot as a game seems to have emerged in the early to mid-15th century in Northern Italy: a normal deck of 52 cards, to which the  21 carte da trionfi (“triumph cards”) were added, along with the Fool.

Tarot decks were used for gaming at first; written records of their use in divination don’t appear until the 18th century, when they became quite popular with leading occultists of that period, and became associated with magic and mysticism. The alleged Egyptian connection is attributed to a Swiss clergyman named Antoine Court de Gebelin, who believed the popular Tarot de Marseille represented the mysteries of Isis and the Egyptian Book of Thoth. (It wasn’t true, but nonetheless the legend spread.) A prominent French occultist named Alliette used the tarot to tell fortunes just before the French Revolution, and Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine de Beauharnais, was fascinated by tarot readings, which helped popularize them further. Today, the most widely used deck in the US is the Rider-Waite Tarot, featuring images drawn by artist Pamela Colman-Smith in accordance with the instruction of Christian mystic/occultist Arthur Edward Waite, first published in 1910. (Both Waite and Smith were members of the Golden Dawn.)

No doubt because of the rich complexity of their symbolism, tarot cards figure in almost every artistic medium imaginable. For instance, Bizet’s Carmen has a pivotal scene in which Carmen and her two gypsy pals read their fortunes in the cards. Her friends see love and wealth, but the doomed Carmen can only see her own death. Sci-fi author Roger Zelazny has his characters in the Amber fantasy series use magical decks of tarot cards to communicate with each other (each of the Major Arcana represents a character). Television is rife with tarot references: the decks are a major feature in the HBO series Carnivale, and have been featured in episodes of the 1994 teen drama My So-Called life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and (more recently) Monk. Woody Allen’s latest film, Scoop, features a serial killer in London whose signature is a tarot card left at the crime scenes. And the cards have become an art form in and of themselves: all manner of uniquely designed decks have cropped up, from mystical New Age decks like the Tarot of the Cat People, to decks based on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, and even a deck devoted to computer geeks, where the major arcana cards include The Hacker, Flame War, and The Garage. (The suits are Networks, Cubicles, Disks and Hosts, while the court cards are the CIO, the Salesman, the Marketer and the New Hire.)

Clearly, tarot cards hold a fascination for us that has little to do with divination, igniting our imaginations in some very intriguing ways. I learned how to read tarot spreads myself in the 1990s — not because I attribute any special powers to either myself or the cards, but because I was fascinated by their symbolism and how they could be arranged in so many different combinations to essentially tell a story. There are certain universal elements that seem to resonate with the human psyche, and these are built into the tarot design, and the associated meanings of each card. Noted psychologist Carl Jung was fascinated by tarot symbolism — like me, not because he ascribed to them any mystical powers, but for what those symbols revealed about human nature in general, and the specific fixations and subconscious yearnings of his patients.

Jung might have been onto something. People do seem to crave reassurance about their decisions and direction in life, even if their “fortunes” merely serve to reinforce what their gut instincts have already determined. They look to things like crystals, tarot cards, and astrology, in addition to psychotherapy, as one means of getting that reassurance — and perhaps as an avenue to acquiring deeper self-knowledge. A recent article in the Washington Post by the self-described “spiritually sensitive” Rachel Machacek relates her experiences visiting five different psychics in a single day as an exercise in determining whether there is anything to be gained by such ventures. She concludes:

“My day of fortunetelling included some nerve-jangling moments. And it got me thinking about where I’d been, my current situation and what the future holds for me. And I suppose that’s the point of any therapy: awareness and acknowledgment of your issues, and moving forward guided by positive forces.”

That’s the sort of mushy, unfocused, vaguely New Age sentiment that sets a skeptic’s teeth on edge, especially if said skeptic has any background in science. After all, science is predicated on our ability to make accurate predictions about the world based on precise, universal physical laws, using the language of mathematics. Well, sort of: things can get a bit weird at the subatomic level, where we can only assign probabilites, because the very act of observing something causes it to change, such that any information we glean about, say, an electron is no longer valid a moment later.  We can use science to make useful predictions about some things, but not others: the weather, for instance, remains unpredictable beyond a few days, and while statistical analysis can help traders on Wall Street better navigate the rising and falling of the stock market, it can’t determine those fluctuations with 100% accuracy. There are just too many variables.

So, while the old Pythagorean notion of the music of the celestial spheres might have fallen by the wayside, that doesn’t mean Nature isn’t engaged in an elaborately intricate dance all her own. Williams’ novel even cites the movement of electrons (discovered just a few decades earlier) as being among those steps. Nature’s dance includes “everything that changes, and there is nothing nowhere that does not change,” and it is that change that makes the future so hard to predict. Even if the characters in The Greater Trumps can pin down one exact moment, in a flash, that moment is over and their observation is no longer accurate.

And it can change in a myriad of different directions, each change begetting more change, branches upon branches in the evolutionary timeline.  Replay the same scene and alter just one tiny element, and you may find — as meteorologist Edward Lorenz did in the 1960s when he sought to create a predictive model for the weather — that things play out in entirely different ways, with dramatically different outcomes. Our fortunes, the twists and turns in the road of human life, just have too many variables. In their own way, the fictional Henry Lee and his gypsy grandfather are pursuing a sort of science, seeking absolute truth in a constantly changing world. But as physicist Richard Feynman once shrewdly observed, Nature doesn’t always willingly reveal her secrets. Certain elements of the great cosmic dance seem to be always hovering just beyond our ken — which is what makes life so interesting. We continually seek new knowledge and greater understanding, and this in turn raises new questions and mysteries to be solved. It is, indeed, a never-ending cosmic dance.

When not taking random walks at 3 Quarks Daily, Jennifer Ouellette writes about science and culture on her own blog, Cocktail Party Physics. Her latest book, The Physics of the Buffyverse, has just been published by Penguin.

Below the Fold: Getting Concrete about Equality by Educating Girls and Women

A month ago in 3QD, I argued that microfinance wouldn’t eliminate poverty or do much in advancing global economic equality. Two weeks ago, I proposed that it’s no use thinking you can eliminate global poverty without achieving economic equality, something now supported by even the World Bank. Equality eliminates poverty, but poverty elimination doesn’t achieve equality. It produces people who are less poor at best, and who are not able to protect any economic gains they might make via poverty reduction programs. Several months ago, I argued that poor countries could not close the inequality gap between them and us without rich countries sharing some of their wealth.

One 3QD respondent asked, given my dim view of microfinance, what I would propose instead. I want to take up one proposal and show how it would be superior to more investments in microfinance.

Suppose you want to invest a dollar with the goal of increasing world economic equality, and so you are considering how to make that dollar work to the best advantage of poor people in poor countries. Consider subsidizing poor family incomes by rewarding people for keeping their girls in school. That is, give a family that keeps its daughters in school a monthly income supplement for every girl in school.

The Benefits of Educating Girls and Subsidizing Families to Do It

StreetpicWhy? Because economists and poor people’s advocates alike will tell you that spending money to put poor girls through school is the best way to build sustainable and poverty-free economies. Further, girls’ education is key to achieving gender equality, and as an added benefit, a family subsidy helps reduce poverty at home. Not incidentally, if people are induced to put girls through school, the evidence suggests that they will endeavor to keep their boys in school too.

The economic benefits are significant. Economies grow faster the more education women have. Not only do societies produce more because they have more workers, productivity improves because you are enabling the least qualified persons to be more qualified for more difficult and rewarding work. At the same time, one need not settle for improvement solely in the relatively small industrial economies of poor countries. Educated rural women improve agricultural productivity as well – a significant step forward for poor societies considering that women perform the lion’s share of agricultural labor.

Women with more education in poor countries have children who live longer, are better fed, and experience better cognitive development. The children are more likely to be immunized against basic infectious diseases. Increased women’s earnings are also more likely to be used to support children than if men remained the sole money source of the family.

As economist and former Harvard president Larry Summers argues, educating young girls is the best single investment a poor society can make.

How Does It Work in Mexico?

Tassawur Increasing girls’ school attendance by providing their families with income supplements is not cheap. Mexico has an exemplary program of providing monthly stipends for keeping poor children in school. Though the state pays a subsidy for every poor boy and girl, more is paid for the education of a girl. The further the girl goes in her schooling, the monthly stipend increases so that, for example, when a girl reaches her third year in secondary school, her family receives a monthly grant equivalent to 46% of an agricultural worker’s monthly income.

The results have been terrific. School enrollments have grown by as much as 17% in the crucial higher grades, a time when children are often taken out of school to work in the fields. Now girls attend middle school in roughly equal proportion to boys, and both sexes have now passed the 75% rate of school attendance.

As I said, the program is not cheap. In 2004, the program did reach 5 million poor Mexican households, twenty percent of all Mexican households. The cost, 2.3 billion dollars a year, is certainly a lot of money, but proportionately is only 1.5% of the Mexican federal government’s budget, and a fraction of 1% of the Mexican national output.

Suppose you took the same dollar and put it as capital into non-profit microfinance. You might be surprised to find out that providing poor people with small loans to start and improve small businesses costs much more on a mass basis than educating their children and subsidizing their monthly incomes. The United Nations Capital Development Fund, the sponsor of an initiative to spread microfinance operations worldwide, but especially among poor people in poor countries, estimated in 2005 that it takes 22 billion dollars to adequately serve the microfinance needs of 100 million poor people.

Let’s do the math for Mexico. Half of Mexico’s 100 million people, or 50 million people, are poor. So, if we were to provide Mexico’s poor with adequate microfinance funds, it would cost us 11 billion dollars a year, or half of what the United Nations estimates is needed to cover 100 million poor people.

In contrast, suppose we provide education subsidies to all poor families sending their children to school, and for as long as they attend school. Right now, as noted above, the supplement program covers 20% of all households. Given that I do not have average Mexican household size by income handy, I ask your indulgence here. I am assuming for the purposes of the argument that the average size of a Mexican household is the same from top to bottom of the income distribution. In other words I am supposing that the 50 million Mexicans (half the population) whom we know live in poverty compose half, or 12.5 million of Mexico’s 25 million households. That means that the education subsidy program would have to be increased two and a half times its present rate of 2.3 billion dollars a year to cover all poor families. This would cost approximately 5.75 billion dollars year.

There is a certain dumb luck, perhaps, in how symmetrical the numbers here turn out to be.

An anti-poverty program that by supporting girls’ education increases the prospects for ultimately greater economic and gender equality while providing cash income support to all Mexico’s poor households costs a little more than half as much as availing them of microfinance. Even assuming poor households are significantly larger than rich and middle class households, the difference between the cost of microfinance and the cost of education subsidies is large enough to cover any mistakes made in estimating the number of poor children with change to spare.

The difference between Mexico and very poor countries is that Mexico, at least, has the state funds to provide education subsidies on a large-scale basis. If the lesson that education support is better and cheaper than microfinance holds, rich countries in assisting very poor countries will need to provide proportionately more money support. Being a very poor country means lower incomes and few state resources. Again, though, it seems to make more sense than pumping up the poor with microfinance.

The worldwide campaign to make microfinance the key to eliminating poverty and improving economic opportunities for the poor looks both expensive and likely to be ineffective, I hope my previous column Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime? gave you reasons why in principle you should not support microfinance. Recall too that microfinance has not been shown to measurably reduce poverty in poor countries, and almost by definition cannot be expected to help eliminate economic inequality. Quite the contrary: if it works well, microfinance should create a probably a minority stratum of small business people who by their success would be a cut above the poor. Microfinance, if it succeeds, then, could actually increase economic inequality in poor countries.

Well, reader, place your bets. Where would you, and where should we, put that dollar to work? Education for poor girls that puts money in their parents’ pockets or small, high-interest loans for a minority of their mothers in high-risk enterprises? Me, I’m sticking with Larry Summers, perhaps for the first time in my life.

Next time, I will write about global, universal health care.

‘Asking Auden’

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD‘s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au and at the NLA.

To commemorate the centenary of the birth of the poet W. H. Auden which falls on 21 February, 2007 I am posting my poem ‘Asking Auden’ written in 1984 and first published in A Temporary Grace in 1991.

                   Asking Auden

‘Who,’ the inquisitive will ask
‘Was he?’ A writer who spoke honestly
Of his time and character
On this abrasive satellite,
Acknowledging the muck
Words can make whole.

Don’t get uptight
Or too plastered
As you prime your pals—
Chester, Igor, Rhoda;
Think of this poor planet,
Rotten with bad sorts
And horrors greater than any
Ever imagined before.

I can hear you bitching on,
Calling out the old complaints:
Frog effusions are offensive.
Why are people always late!,
Looking like a scruff and dropping
Ash upon the Muses.

Wystan, tend attentive ears,
Bless us on the earth below,
Sens a rhyming, mystic message,
Drop it in the Grand Canal
Where The Rake was first presented
And your hotel rooms were bad.
Let the gondala ferry forward
Through the reeking air and slush,
Bringing with it new precision,
Agape and eros, beauty,
Mastery of form and space.
Wystan! Please stop gossiping,
Listen to my plea,
Send unconscious powers aplenty,
Send the critics out to sea.

Suddenly a voice is heard,
Genial features looming:
These interruptions just won’t do.
Be yourself without my help.
Be true to truth and ready for the worst.
Work hard and don’t expect
That God is easily pleased!

With that he sighed, sat back, relaxed,
Ethereally smoked, and drank a glass of schnapps.

A promise then, remembering
The folds of that transatlantic face—
To summon up fresh energy
For the new century of the race
Called sapiens, whose language grabs
From past and future tense
Continuing words of grace.

Chester, Igor, Rhoda: Chester Kallman, Igor Stravinsky, Rhoda Jaffe

The Rake: The Rake’s Progress, opera premiered in Venice September 11, 1951, libretto Auden/Kallman

Sandlines: Can Africa’s Pygmies be ‘made equal’?

Jared Diamond’s overarching thesis in Guns Germs and Steel—that the fate of human societies is largely determined by their capacity for food production—is beguiling for its simplicity, and for the tapestry of learning he brings to its defense. To some, it is the versatile pragmatism of the thesis that seduces. For others, any attempt at a unified field theory of human progress bears the mark of the devil and cannot, de facto, hold water.

The source of my affinity for the theory lies, I confess, rather with the man’s Norwegian homesteader beard: such a countenance cannot not be trusted. See the DVD version of GGS, with Diamond traversing the globe and expounding his theory alongside hunter-gatherers in Papua New Guinea and weeping in African HIV hostels, to appreciate his truly endearing qualities. Your next move might be, as mine was, to scour the consumer parking lot of Ebay for a lifesize, cardboard cut-out likeness of Professor Diamond to stand guard over your living room.


‘By accident of their geographic location’, Diamond likes to say, societies either inherit or develop food production capacities that in turn facilitate population density, germs, political organization, technology, and other ‘ingredients of power’. Diamond applies this reading to a number of human societies, including those on the losing end of history. And they lose, it turns out, by the sheer accident of their less endowed natural environment. For the world’s remaining indigenous peoples, particularly those whose mode of production is dominated by hunting game and gathering wild foods, their geographic locations may be diverse or dull, fertile or barren. Common to their respective natural environments is an absence of plant and animal species suitable for domestication and cultivation, an obvious pre-requisite for the creation of surplus.

Africa’s most renowned hunter-gatherer groups, the Pygmies[1] of Central Africa and the Khoisan or ‘San’ of the Kalahari Desert, are surrounded by a cornucopia of edible plants and wild game. Diamond examines the dominant flora and fauna in these two regions to show that that neither Pygmies nor San—or their farming neighbors—have succeeded in domesticating a single native plant or animal species for cultivation. Sub-Saharan Africa’s crops and livestock, like the practice of cultivating them, are all non-indigenous. Both the practices and the raw materials were gradually imported over centuries by invading Bantu farmers from West Africa[2] and, to a lesser degree, by colonizing whites. Both San and Pygmy hunter-gatherers were engulfed by a Bantu majority, to which they reacted by further compressing into their respective natural habitats.[3]

As minority hunter-gatherers surrounded by a farming majority, Central Africa’s Pygmies have fared far worse than the San of the Kalahari. Unlike the Pygmies, San hunter-gatherers retained their original language and lifestyle—against forced modernization efforts by the Botswana government—by remaining geographically concentrated in a harsh desert world whose sole monetary resource is subterranean (diamonds). Not so for Pygmy groups. Seeing their forest world first conquered by outsiders, then divided into protected reserves and game parks, and now increasingly deforested and mined by extractive industries, Pygmies have scattered into a thin diaspora across nine different countries. Displacement and ensuing marginalization has not meant banishment from their forest home, but Pygmies did lose their original language in the process, attesting to the extent of their self-estrangement.

_41690914_pygmy_203_bbcOver the last five years, I have had two occasions to work with different Pygmy groups in the Congo, and hope to again this year. In both instances I was struck by the automatic and fierce prejudice with which they were treated by the surrounding Bantu Congolese, subsistence farmers living at the same level of extreme indigence and dispossession as the Pygmies themselves. The other primary characteristic of their misery was the degree to which they had internalized the Bantu discourse of their inferiority and ignorance.

They were at such a nadir that they actually believed the racist slander to which they were constantly subjected; their inferiority complex was total and all-consuming. Every aspect of their lives was to them proof not of the injustice of the discriminatory discourse around them but of their own failure, their incompetence, their baseness. Their identity as they expressed it in focus group discussions consisted precisely of the very insults they heard throughout their lives from their Bantu neighbors. It was stunning and tragic—they were totally brainwashed.

Of course there is much to romanticize in the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, partcularly that of Pygmies, whose place in the Western fantasy of primordial proximity to enchanted nature is deeply entrenched. In this spirit, National Geographic has an excellent website devoted to the Bambuti Pygmies of northwestern Congo. It captures the beauty of certain unbroken traditions, the spiritualization of their forest world and the ceremony of certain maturation rituals.

Visual documentation of their exile and destitution among the Bantu are few, to my knowledge, but a series of gripping images by Dutch photographer Chris Keulen provide such testimony. To see them, go to Keulen’s site and look under ‘Stories’, then click on ‘Congo DRC 2001’. The Pygmy photos are not marked because they are part of a larger series on living conditions for civilians at the epicenter of Congo’s war in 2001. In the series, images of people standing or sitting outside or beside makeshift shelters are generally of Pygmies (I only know this because I was indirectly involved in the shoot). Those seated indoors, in health centers or schools, are generally Bantu. The trauma is evident and Pygmy living conditions defy description: the one of a girl lying face down on volcanic rock (# 007) is to me the most poignant in the series.

For 2007, UN agencies are considering intensive programming aimed at establishing the equal rights, access to health care and education for Congolese Pygmy groups. I am curious to see how the UN approaches the issue: clearly the dominant Congolese (Bantu) society is at fault, rife as it is with profound racism and prejudice towards its original inhabitants. Project proposals I have seen base themselves on UN legal precedents recognizing and protecting the rights of indigenous groups, based on the principle of ‘autochthony’.

But are victimhood and a history of oppression the most constructive rhetorical arguments to restore equality between peoples? Victimhood as a tool of empowerment does not seem to result in sustainable integration or equality between peoples, although it is very effective in generating and perpetuating a discourse of difference and resentment, particularly the entitlement mentality.

What would Prof. Diamond say about all this? Hunter-gatherers availing themselves of legal instruments to survive is positive, as the San are doing to reclaim their ancestral homelands in Botswana (having been forcibly evicted four years ago). The Pygmies lack sufficient representation and mobilization capacity, dispersed as they are across nine countries in small groups (their total population is estimated between 300,000 and 500,000). Diamond’s contingency thesis would appear to hold, as the legal and political leverage hunter-gatherers deploy will only be as effective as the national legal codes and judiciary system of the day. In the Congo, after all, justice is sold to the highest bidder. Their Bantu compatriots, like the flora and fauna of their forest home, may not prove receptive to legal settlements over land rights for Pygmies. Sadly, the fate of Pygmies will likely remain beholden to limitations imposed by their environment.

[1] The term ‘Pygmy’ is used here as adopted by indigenous activists and support organizations to encompass the different groups of central African forest hunter-gatherers and former hunter-gatherers. Sometimes used pejoratively, here the term is used to distinguish them from other ethnic groups who may also live in forests, but who are more reliant on farming, and who are economically and politically dominant.

[2] A term conventionally used for settled farming peoples, although these groups include Oubangian and Sudanic language speakers as well as Bantu language speakers.

[3] If geographic location determines a society’s mode of production, for better or worse, one wonders if Diamond would concede the inverse of his theory: that hunting/gathering as a mode of production is itself an accident, not a choice—a default livelihood whose inefficiencies are endured, not overcome through experimentation with other modes of production. Still, this would not explain why hunter-gatherers like the Pygmy and San never venture beyond the limitations of their environments and modes of production to experiment with different ones elsewhere.

MLK’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in America, here is the full text of MLK’s letter, written in response to an open letter published in newspapers by eight clergymen (Bishop C. C. J. Carpenter, Bishop Joseph A. Durick, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman, Bishop Paul Hardin, Bishop Holan B. Harmon, the Reverend George M. Murray. the Reverend Edward V. Ramage and the Reverend Earl Stallings) from Alabama:

April 16, 1963

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here In Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I. compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place In Brimingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

Read more »

Zadie Smith on literature’s legacy of honourable failure

What makes a good writer? Is writing an expression of self, or, as TS Eliot argued, ‘an escape from personality’? Do novelists have a duty? Do readers? Why are there so few truly great novels?

From The Guardian:

Screenhunter_03_jan_14_2313I’ve often thought it would be fascinating to ask living writers: “Never mind critics, what do you yourself think is wrong with your writing? How did you dream of your book before it was created? What were your best hopes? How have you let yourself down?” A map of disappointments – that would be a revelation.

Map of disappointments – Nabokov would call that a good title for a bad novel. It strikes me as a suitable guide to the land where writers live, a country I imagine as mostly beach, with hopeful writers standing on the shoreline while their perfect novels pile up, over on the opposite coast, out of reach. Thrusting out of the shoreline are hundreds of piers, or “disappointed bridges”, as Joyce called them. Most writers, most of the time, get wet. Why they get wet is of little interest to critics or readers, who can only judge the soggy novel in front of them. But for the people who write novels, what it takes to walk the pier and get to the other side is, to say the least, a matter of some importance. To writers, writing well is not simply a matter of skill, but a question of character. What does it take, after all, to write well? What personal qualities does it require? What personal resources does a bad writer lack? In most areas of human endeavour we are not shy of making these connections between personality and capacity. Why do we never talk about these things when we talk about books?

More here.

Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy

Robert Pinsky reviews the new book by Barbara Ehrenreich, in the New York Times Book Review:

Screenhunter_02_jan_14_2258“Take me out with the crowd,” goes the old baseball song. “I love this crowd,” repeats the classic stand-up comic. Every lecturer knows: the larger the group, the more they become an event for themselves, heightening the attention, the laughs or the emotions. At our national political conventions, people wear silly hats and bob up and down to music so stupid it is a parody of music, in order to “demonstrate” a political feeling. Participating in a demonstrative crowd gives joy, as being a mere spectator cannot. Even in a culture where recorded performance has become central, people crave the live event, largely for that group joy.

Barbara Ehrenreich wants to affirm the value of ecstatic group celebration. She aligns it with the old precolonial, precapitalist, pre-Christian religions, and with Carnival. The dancing meant by her title has ancient roots; it precedes streets. It also goes beyond them in the modern stadium, where sports and music, watching and performing, all merge. The kind of celebration Ehrenreich celebrates is communal though ungoverned, and anti-hierarchical though ancient. In the god Dionysus she sees a liberating force needed but resisted by modern Western society.

More here.

Bilingualism delays onset of dementia

From New Scientist:

Bilingual2People who are fully bilingual and speak both languages every day for most of their lives can delay the onset of dementia by up to four years compared with those who only know one language, Canadian scientists said on Friday.

Researchers said the extra effort involved in using more than one language appeared to boost blood supply to the brain and ensure nerve connections remained healthy – two factors thought to help fight off dementia.

“We are pretty dazzled by the results,” Professor Ellen Bialystok of Toronto’s York University said in a statement.

More here.

For two thousand years men have written about ladies with small waists

From The Economist:

Barbierefresh5000295Some gentlemen may prefer blondes, but almost all seem to like a waist to hip ratio of between 0.6 and 0.7. Breasts and bottoms should be substantial; waists should be slim. It should be the case all over the world and throughout human history.

That, at least, is the prevailing theory among evolutionary psychologists. The ratio in question correlates with hormone levels promoting maximum female fertility and health, so men who prefer curvy women will have more children. Devendra Singh, of the University of Texas, in Austin, has proved the point in the past by measuring the vital statistics of Playboy models. He found that centrefolds vary in weight but not in their hourglass shapes.

More here.

Love, Life, Goethe

Thomas McGonigle in the Los Angeles Times:

Goethe_3John Armstrong knows he has an uphill battle in making a case for his subject, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The author even begins his book, “Love, Life, Goethe,” with the Dublin building-site joke he heard as a youth about how to say the German writer and philosopher’s name. “A new construction worker is a bit confused and asks: ‘Joist? Girder? What’s the difference?’ The foreman patiently explains: ‘Joist wrote Ulysses, Girder wrote Faust. ‘ ”

That brings us no closer to the correct pronunciation, but no matter. You know the name; you probably know that he wrote “Faust” and you might even know that he wrote “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and “Italian Journey.” More likely, though, Goethe — whom James Joyce regarded as being in the great writers’ “Holy Trinity” along with Dante and Shakespeare — is one of those classic writers you didn’t get around to in college, let alone high school.

Armstrong argues in this fine and useful book that Goethe was not only a literary genius but also someone who explored the human yearning for happiness in an imperfect world. Although it’s wise to heed Mississippi writer Walker Percy’s admonition that a self-help tract works only while one is reading it, Armstrong has written the perfect volume to read in early January as you break nearly every New Year’s resolution.

More here.

The Making, and Unmaking, of a Child Soldier

Ishmael Beah in the New York Times Magazine:

14soldier_cover_450Sometimes I feel that living in New York City, having a good family and friends, and just being alive is a dream, that perhaps this second life of mine isn’t really happening. Whenever I speak at the United Nations, Unicef or elsewhere to raise awareness of the continual and rampant recruitment of children in wars around the world, I come to realize that I still do not fully understand how I could have possibly survived the civil war in my country, Sierra Leone.

Most of my friends, after meeting the woman whom I think of as my new mother, a Brooklyn-born white Jewish-American, assume that I was either adopted at a very young age or that my mother married an African man. They would never imagine that I was 17 when I came to live with her and that I had been a child soldier and participated in one of the most brutal wars in recent history.

More here.

John Hope Franklin on MLK’s Dream

Historian and civil rights activist John Hope Franklin explains how the movement toward Martin Luther King’s dream has been significant—that we can expect a black president ‘soon’—but ‘not nearly as effective as it should be.’

Karen Fragala Smith in Newsweek:

JohnhopefranklinHe assisted Thurgood Marshall prepare the Supreme Court case for 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, which ended up desegregating schools in America. He marched for civil rights in Montgomery, Ala., in 1965. He authored 15 books on history and race relations. Yet on the very night he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995—the highest honor bestowed upon an American civilian—he found himself in the ironic position of directing a woman to the coat check attendant after she handed him her ticket stub and demanded her coat. Currently the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University, Franklin, 92, remains committed to educating the public. In honor of Martin Luther King Day, he shared his views on civil rights, education, and race relations with NEWSWEEK’s Karen Fragala Smith. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Brown v. the Board of Education changed the law and made history, but what does it take for a society to eliminate discrimination from people’s hearts and minds?

John Hope Franklin: You don’t need to change their hearts; you need to change their practice. Here’s what the problem is. The Supreme Court decision was handed down on the 17th of May 1954, and what was the reaction of almost a third of the Senate? They challenged people not to obey the Supreme Court Decision. In other words, it was better to become outlaws than to obey a decision with which they disagreed. If you have people in responsible positions like the Senate not obeying the law, then what chance do you have of Joe [Citizen] obeying the law?

More here.

Stunning sculpture park could redefine waterfront

From The Seattle Times:

Park_2 It’s not often in the life of a city that its identity transforms. Not just the way a place looks or functions, but the way people perceive it, at home and abroad. In Seattle, the last time such a major transition happened was the early 1960s, when the Century 21 Exposition thrust the disk of the Space Needle and the lacy arches of the Pacific Science Center into the urban skyline — and framed them with a new civic gathering place that became Seattle Center.

Now the city is poised to receive another image-changing landmark.

This Saturday, Seattle Art Museum (SAM) will introduce the Olympic Sculpture Park, a sweeping 9-acre green space at the north end of the downtown waterfront. One of the park’s prime features is its magnificent views. It presents a 360-degree panorama of Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains, Mount Rainier and the surrounding city.

More here.

Martin Luther King

From Time (1998):

Main_king_1 It is a testament to the greatness of Martin Luther King Jr. that nearly every major city in the U.S. has a street or school named after him. It is a measure of how sorely his achievements are misunderstood that most of them are located in black neighborhoods. Even after the Supreme Court struck down segregation in 1954, what the world now calls human-rights offenses were both law and custom in much of America. Before King and his movement, a tired and thoroughly respectable Negro seamstress like Rosa Parks could be thrown into jail and fined simply because she refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus so a white man could sit down. A six-year-old black girl like Ruby Bridges could be hectored and spit on by a white New Orleans mob simply because she wanted to go to the same school as white children. A 14-year-old black boy like Emmett Till could be hunted down and murdered by a Mississippi gang simply because he had supposedly made suggestive remarks to a white woman.

The movement that King led swept all that away.

More here.

multi-media musical mind

Will Hermes on David Byrne in The New York Times:

David_byrne_1These days this 54-year-old polymath has been particularly busy. He is the curator of the 2007 Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall, which next month will feature a program of experimental folk music (including Vashti Bunyan, Devendra Banhart, Vetiver, Adem, Cibelle and CocoRosie) and a multi-artist concert based on the conceit of a single drone note. It will also include two nights of Mr. Byrne’s work: a performance of music from “The Knee Plays,” his 1985 theatrical collaboration with Robert Wilson, and a preview of “Here Lies Love,” his new multimedia song cycle based on the life and reign of Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines.

If that seems an unlikely subject, well, consider the fact that Mr. Byrne, like Ms. Marcos, clearly appreciates a good pair of shoes. “Hush Puppies came out with all these wild colors like seven, eight years ago,” he said after his opening, referring to his turquoise footwear. “I thought: ‘Who the hell is going to buy these? They look like they’re for some Vegas singer.’ I figured they wouldn’t be around long, so I got those and a yellow pair and a lime-green pair.”

More here.

Link to Mr.Byrne’s Journal here.

shocking depression

From the Boston Globe:

Kitty_duk_1The First Lady’s Shocking Story:

Her battle with depression is well known, but in her new book, Shock, Kitty Dukakis, with help from award-winning medical journalist Larry Tye, shares how controversial shock therapy treatments may have saved her life.

It is June 20, 2001, Michael’s and my 38th wedding anniversary. It also is the end of my fourth month of depression, my crisis period. I’m normally a person with enormous enthusiasm for and interest in the world. All that is just missing now. Fun or enjoyment are things I cannot even imagine. I don’t speak to my kids on the phone, or to my sister. I do keep up with Dad, but he calls me more than I do him. The last two people I want worrying about me are my father, who is too old and dear, and my husband, who has had to worry for far too long. I have run out of options and I don’t want to drink.

These are the times when I am most vulnerable. Having a drink is the only way of bringing me away from the horrendous feelings I am having about myself. It starts out as a glass or two of wine. It generally ends up with vodka. The alcohol is like an amnesiac, it is able to take me away from the darkness. Last night I was so afraid I was going to drink that I had them check me in here at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Today I am going to try the only thing left: electro-convulsive therapy.

More here.

Find more of Larry Tye’s very interesting books here, and a 3quarksdaily post on his last book here.

“An anthropologist of the everyday”

Darold Treffert, MD at the Savant Syndrome Website of the Wisconsin Medical Society:

Blackstock Greg Blackstock has never been happier. Since his recent retirement from the Washington Athletic Club, after 25 years as a dishwasher, he has been able to focus his attention on his two loves, drawing and music. In 2003 his remarkable drawings came to the attention of the Garde Rail Gallery in Seattle, Washington, specialists in ‘Outsider Art” and Greg has become a featured artist there.. Their Web site at www.garde-rail.com describes him thus:

“Greg exhibits many of the remarkable traits of the autistic savant; he speaks many languages, is an incredible mimic, and is able to recall events with uncanny precision… It is without doubt in our minds that Gregory Blackstock would be an artist under any circumstance — his autism did not make him become an artist, nor is he an artist because of it… Through his art and his music, Gregory has effectively been able to combat this disability and to meet the challenge with fantastic results… Gregory’s drawings are often large, on several sheets of paper pieced together by Greg with tape and glue. Using pencil, crayon, ink and marker, Gregory depicts insects and baskets with incredible precision, straight lines and test executed without the aid of a straight rule. The detail is minute, shading impeccable.”
More here and here.

Thanks to Anjuli Raza Kolb for introducing me to this interesting artist.