Thank You, Richard Dawkins

Sean Carroll makes the case for Richard Dawkins’ approach to the defense of atheism, although I’m not sure I would use the word “arrogant” here.

In other words, by being arrogant and uncompromising in his atheism, Dawkins has done a tremendous amount to make the very concept of atheism a respectable part of the public debate, even if you find him personally obnoxious. Evidence: a few years ago, major newsmagazines (prompted in part by the efforts of the Templeton Foundation) were running cover stories with titles like Science Finds God (Newsweek, July 20, 1998). Pure moonshine, of course — come down where you will on the whole God debate, it remains pretty clear that science hasn’t found Him. But, within the range of acceptable public discourse, both science and God were considered to be undeniably good things — it wasn’t a stretch to put them together. Nowadays, in contrast, we find cover stories with titles like God vs. Science (Time, Nov 13, 2006). You never would have seen such a story just a few years ago.

This is a huge step forward. Keep in mind, the typical American thinks of atheists as fundamentally untrustworthy people. A major network like CNN will think nothing of hosting a roundtable discussion on atheism and not asking any atheists to participate. But, unlike a short while ago, they will eventually be shamed into admitting that was a mistake, and make up for it by inviting some atheists to defend their ideas. Baby steps. Professional news anchors may still seem a little befuddled at the notion that a clean, articulate person may not believe in God. But at least that notion is getting a decent public hearing. Once people actually hear what atheists have to say, perhaps they will get the idea that one need not be an amoral baby-killer just because one doesn’t believe in God.

For that, Richard Dawkins, thank you.

Apes could have passed down skills for thousands of years

From Nature:Chimp_3

In the West African rainforest, archaeologists have found ancient chimpanzee stone tools thousands of years older than the previous oldest finds in the same area. The discovery suggests that chimps may have passed cultural information down the generations for more than 4,000 years.

The human fossil record dates back 2.6 million years, thanks to our ancestors’ who lived in more arid areas, where bones are well preserved. But the chimp fossil record is very sparse. We know little about ancient chimps’ lifestyles, and only one previous set of old tools, dating from 100 years ago, has been found.

Both sets of tools consist of stones used to smash open the nuts of the panda tree (Panda oleosa), and the flakes of stone chipped off by this hammering. They were found in the same spot of rainforest in the Côte d’Ivoire. The recently discovered set is dated to 4,300 years ago, researchers report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More here.

Eat, Drink and Be Merry

From Scientific American:

Food_4 The problem is that our bodies have evolved to crave copious amounts of rich and tasty foods, because historically such foods were valuable and rare. How can we modern humans resist? We shouldn’t, at least not entirely, says Barry Glassner, a University of Southern California sociologist and author of the forthcoming book The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know about Food Is Wrong (Ecco). When it comes to healthy absorption of nutrients, taste matters. Glassner cites a study in which “Swedish and Thai women were fed a Thai dish that the Swedes found overly spicy. The Thai women, who liked the dish, absorbed more iron from the meal. When the researchers reversed the experiment and served hamburger, potatoes, and beans, the Swedes, who like this food, absorbed more iron. Most telling was a third variation of the experiment, in which both the Swedes and the Thais were given food that was high in nutrients but consisted of a sticky, savorless paste. In this case, neither group absorbed much iron.”

Speaking of iron, Atkins is out and meat is bad, right? Wrong. Glassner notes a study showing that as meat consumption and blood cholesterol levels increased in groups of Greeks, Italians and Japanese, their death rates from heart disease decreased.

More here.

The Cost of the Iraq War: Can You Say $1,000,000,000,000?

John Allen Paulos in his Who’s Counting column at ABC News:

TrillionThe price tag for the Iraq War is now estimated at $700 billion in direct costs and perhaps twice that much when indirect expenditures are included. Cost estimates vary — Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz puts the total cost at more than $2 trillion — but let’s be conservative and say it’s only $1 trillion (in today’s dollars).

As a number of other commentators have recently written, this number — a 1 followed by 12 zeroes — can be put into perspective in various ways. Given how large the war looms, it doesn’t hurt to repeat this simple exercise with other examples and in other ways.

There are many comparisons that might be made, and devising new governmental monetary units is one way to make them. Consider, for example, that the value of one EPA, the annual budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, is about $7.5 billion. The cost of the Iraq War is thus more than a century’s worth of EPA spending (in today’s dollars), almost 130 EPAs, only a small handful of which would probably have been sufficient to clean up Superfund sites around the country.

More here.

Black Woodstock

Harlem 1969: Jesse Jackson, Nina Simone, B.B. King and 100,000 spectators gather for a concert worth remembering.

Richard Morgan in Smithsonian Magazine:

WoodstockjesseEthel Beaty-Barnes, then an 18-year-old fresh from her high-school graduation, still remembers what she wore to the Sly & The Family Stone concert in Harlem in 1969: a floral halter top and matching bellbottoms, her hair in a sidebun. “It was so overcrowded. People were sitting in the trees. It was boiling hot but not one ounce of trouble,” she said recently from her home in Newark, New Jersey. The word “trouble” back then was a euphemism for chaos.

The concert she attended, what some now call the Black Woodstock, came on the heels of two of Malcolm X’s former aides being shot—one fatally. The local NAACP chairman likened Harlem at the time to the vigilante Old West (earlier that year, five sticks of dynamite had been found behind a local precinct house; a cop dampened the charred fuse with his fingers). So it came as little surprise when the NYPD refused to provide security for the festival. Instead, security came from the Black Panthers, 21 of whom had been indicted for plotting to mark Martin Luther King’s assassination by bombing Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Abercrombie & Fitch and other stores across Manhattan.

Besides Sly, the festival’s roster included B.B. King, Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, the Fifth Dimension, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Moms Mabley, Pigmeat Markham and more. Speakers included then-mayor John Lindsay, introduced on stage as the black community’s “blue-eyed soul brother.”

More here.

Why hyphy is the best hip-hop right now

Jody Rosen in Slate:

HyphyAs the poet said, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid. But must one choose sides? Not if you listen to “Stewy” by D.B.’z, a rap group from Vallejo, Calif. The song is propelled by a deliriously catchy beat—big wobbly bassline, blasts of keyboard fuzz, and what sounds like a schoolyard full of Ritalin cases chanting taunts—and by a young voice intoning a chorus: “Mainy, cuckoo, silly, bananas/ Mainy, cuckoo, silly, bananas.” Mainy is slang term meaning, well, cuckoo, silly, bananas—craziness of the most inspired and enjoyable sort. A second refrain elaborates on this theme: “Stewy-ewy-ewy-ewy-ewy/Stewy!” To be stewy is to be extra-mainy, really silly. Midway through the song, guest rapper E-40 arrives to deliver his own variation on the theme. “Look at all my young dreadheads,” he exults. “They so dumb!”

“Stewy” is one of 20 songs on Hyphy Hitz (TVT), a new compilation chronicling the Bay Area hip-hop genre known as hyphy (pronounced “hi-fee”), in which stewiness, maininess, dumbness are everything: the means and ends, the sun and moon and stars. The song titles tell the story: “Go Dumb,” “I’m a Fool Wit It,” “Get Stupid.” Stupid has been a term of praise in hip-hop for a couple of decades now. (“That beat is stupid.”) But hyphy elevates idiocy to a new level of esteem. When rapper Mistah F.A.B. boasts of doing “the dummy retarded” in “Super Sic Wit It,” he’s describing an aesthetic and philosophical ideal. Hyphy may be the most conscientiously “dumb” music in history. It’s also by far the best party going on in hip-hop right now.

More here.

Homeland Security safety warnings


The US government has a new website,  It’s another attempt at scare mongering in the style of the old “duck and cover” advice after WWII.

The fun thing is that these pictures are so ambiguous they could mean anything!  Here are a few interpretations:




More here.  [And click here to read more about what we at 3 Quarks Daily are all about.]

What exactly is love?

Julia Stuart in The Independent:

HeartclrwebLove can be divided into three entities: lust, romance and attachment, according to anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher, who has been studying the subject for 32 years. These three brain systems can operate in any order and in any combination. You can fall in love with someone before you sleep with them; you can become deeply attached to somebody and then fall in love with them; and you can have a sexual relationship, fall in love and then become deeply attached.

Lust is a craving for sexual gratification, which you can feel for a whole range of people. Those caught up in romantic love focus all their attention on the object of their affection. Not only do they crave them, but they are highly motivated to win them, they obsessively think about them and become extremely sexually possessive. Perhaps illogically, if things go wrong. they are attracted to them even more. During this state the brain is driven by dopamine, a neurotransmitter central to the reward system.

Romantic love is much more powerful than sex drive, says Dr Fisher, of Rutgers University, New Jersey. And she believes it to be a drive, rather than an emotion. “It doesn’t have any facial expression, it’s very difficult to control and it’s one of the most powerful neural systems that has evolved,” she says.

The third brain system is attachment – that sense of calm and security you can feel for a long-term partner. It is associated with the hormones vasopressin and oxytocin, which are probably responsible for the sense of peacefulness and unity felt after having sex. Holding hands also drives up oxytocin levels, as does looking deeply into your loved one’s eyes, massage, and simply sitting next to them.

More here.

Is there anything that is not a quotation?

Louis Menand in The New Yorker:

Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Neither Ingrid Bergman nor anyone else in “Casablanca” says “Play it again, Sam”; Leo Durocher did not say “Nice guys finish last”; Vince Lombardi did say “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” quite often, but he got the line from someone else. Patrick Henry almost certainly did not say “Give me liberty, or give me death!”; William Tecumseh Sherman never wrote the words “War is hell”; and there is no evidence that Horace Greeley said “Go west, young man.” Marie Antoinette did not say “Let them eat cake”; Hermann Göring did not say “When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my gun”; and Muhammad Ali did not say “No Vietcong ever called me nigger.” Gordon Gekko, the character played by Michael Douglas in “Wall Street,” does not say “Greed is good”; James Cagney never says “You dirty rat” in any of his films; and no movie actor, including Charles Boyer, ever said “Come with me to the Casbah.” Many of the phrases for which Winston Churchill is famous he adapted from the phrases of other people, and when Yogi Berra said “I didn’t really say everything I said” he was correct.

More here.

An Interview with Duncan Foley

DeLong points to this interview with Duncan Foley, author of Adam’s Fallacy, in Radical Notes.

RN: You have distinctly mentioned right in the beginning of Adam’s Fallacy that for you this fallacy resides in the compartmentalization of spheres of life into the economic and the rest of social life. And you consider this dualistic view of social life as the essence of political economy and economics. Can you please elaborate on this? If this dualism is ideological can we understand it as essential for the reproduction of capitalist social life?

DKF: The specific fallacy is Smith’s claim that the pursuit of self-interest, which has to be balanced against regard for others in other human interactions, can be trusted to lead to good outcomes both for oneself and others in the context of competitive market interactions. This idea has reconciled many people to the morally troubling consequences of capitalist development. It leads, as I show in the book, to the development of political economy and modern economics as discourses which claim a “scientific” status but whose content is in one way or another a discussion of this moral philosophical question. The dualism may not be essential for capitalist reproduction, but it seems to me to be an inevitable outgrowth of the contradictions of capitalist social relations.

The Borat tour of America


For the high-minded foreigner, traveling in America can be a dangerous business. Look what happened to Bernard-Henri Levy. In January of last year the glamorous and respected French public intellectual — who has accepted the term “anti-anti-American” as a definition of his attitude toward this country — published his philosophical travelogue “American Vertigo” (Random House) and found himself promptly dismantled on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. The reviewer was Garrison Keillor, gatekeeper of the Midwest, and he had almost too much fun: Dewlaps a-rumble, he charged Levy with bombast, grandiosity, and — most witheringly — a “childlike love of paradox.” He quoted mercilessly from Levy’s flightiest speculations and mocked his heaviest thoughts. He used the phrase “term paper.” It was brutal.

Introducing the American edition of his book “The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures,” published last week by Da Capo Press, Louis Theroux makes wary reference to the Keillor/Levy takedown, recognizing that he is to some extent on the same “Freaks, Fatties, Fanatics and Faux Culture Excursion” — the Borat tour, essentially — for which Keillor so derided the visiting Frenchman.

more from Boston Globe Ideas here.

The territory of tint

From Orion:

Crayon In “Kodachrome,” Paul Simon sings, “Everything looks worse in black and white.” While I don’t entirely agree—penguins, polar bears, early Hitchcock films, and a December day in Gray’s River would all suffer from colorization—I happily echo his sentiments when he sings, “Give us those nice, bright colors.” Or, as Cézanne put it, “Long live those who have the love of color—true representatives of light and air!” I find no conflict between this view and my penchant for hoary hues.

Some people, when they discover that color vision is not general in mammals, feel bad for their pooches and pussycats. Yet our pets know nothing beyond their limited chromaticism, and even if they did, I’m not sure they would swap the exquisite sensitivity of their smell and hearing for what they might regard as the cheap trick of a parti-colored existence. Of the subtle range of perception they achieve through their noses and ears, we know nothing more than they know of our near-deaf progress through a colorful world. We haven’t even a word for nose-blindness! Yet anyone who reads Henry Williamson’s classic Tarka the Otter or Daniel Mannix’s The Fox and the Hound will apprehend something of our mammoth ignorance of these alternative sensory systems.

And what about the colorblind of our own species? Should we feel sorry for them?

More here.

A Familiar and Prescient Voice, Brought to Life

Sagan_1 From The New York Times:

It’s been a long 10 years since we’ve heard Carl Sagan beckoning us to consider the possibilities inherent in the “billions” of stars peppering the sky and in the “billions” of neuronal connections spiderwebbing our brains.

In the day, the Cornell astronomer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of books like “The Dragons of Eden,” “Contact,” “Pale Blue Dot” and “The Demon-Haunted World,” impresario of the PBS program “Cosmos” and Johnny Carson regular was one of the world’s most famous and eloquent unbelievers, an apostle of cosmic wonder, critic of nuclear arms and a champion of science’s duty to probe and question without limit, including the claims of religion. He died of pneumonia after a series of bone marrow transplants in December 1996.

In his absence, the public discourse on his favorite issues — the fate of the planet, the beauty and mystery of the cosmos — has not fared well. The teaching of evolution in public schools has become a bitter bone of contention; NASA tried to abandon the Hubble Space Telescope and censor talk of climate change; and of course, religious fanatics crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center, leading to a war in the Middle East that has awakened memories in some corners of the Crusades.

Now, however, Dr. Sagan has rejoined the cosmic debate from the grave. The occasion is the publication last month of “The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God” (Penguin). The book is based on a series of lectures exploring the boundary between science and religion that Dr. Sagan gave in Glasgow in 1985, and it was edited by Ann Druyan, his widow and collaborator.

More here.

A Case of the Mondays: The Spectrum of Views on the Arab-Israeli Conflict

A lot of the problems in the debates over the Israel-Palestinian conflict stem from a truncated political gamut. The real gamut ranges from more anti-Israeli than Islamic Jihad to more anti-Arab than the settlers in the West Bank. That allows people who favor one side strongly to present their views as moderate and the views of people who want peace on both sides as extreme.

A debate about strategy is inherently one-sided. Debates about Democratic party strategy are intra-Democratic, so the gamut in them runs from very liberal to centrist, rather than from liberal to conservative. Debates about war are the same: international forums like the UN don’t matter much, and intranational ones are similar to partisan ones. Debates about strategy in American foreign policy in the US are always about how to make the US more powerful; Americans aren’t any likelier to be anti-American than Chinese are likely to be anti-Chinese.

Although the debate about Israel and Palestine is ostensibly one of morality—the quintessential question is, “Which side is acting more morally?”—in fact it’s a very strategic one. Serious left-wing Israelis talk mostly about the good peace will do for Israel; the suffering of the Palestinians is only a side issue. Any Palestinian who will talk about the need for nonviolence because terrorism is inherently wrong will be laughed at.

Obviously, there could be a separate political debate divorced from strategy, just as there are political debates between liberals and conservatives. But there are several disanalogies here that in fact favor the intranational debate. First, as I already mentioned, international forums aren’t meaningful enough to be decisive. In the UN it could be possible to strike a balance, but the UN’s authority on any issue, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict, is murky at best.

Second, in those countries that do matter, either there is no public debate, or political prejudices go exclusively one way. In the US, the political elite is strongly pro-Israeli. It’s not because there are no pro-Palestinians in American politics—for example, almost every isolationist in the US harbors some sympathies for the Palestinians—but they are far less influential than the neo-liberals and neo-conservatives. European countries have a more balanced mix of pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian views, but the people holding them tend to self-segregate into their own newspapers, academic circles, political parties, and so on, and the issue isn’t important enough to the public to force an open debate. In the Arab world, pro-Israeli views are typically censored, except when the country in question hates the Palestinians more than the Israelis and has nothing to gain from claiming to support the Palestinian cause.

Roughly, on the pro-Palestinian side, the gamut runs from Fatah, to the party-less Palestinian center, to Hamas, possibly with Islamic Jihad on the fringe. On the pro-Israeli side, it runs from Peace Now to Labor/Kadima to Likud/Israel Beitenu, with the settlers on the fringe. Israeli groups left of Peace Now, like the refuseniks, tend to be mostly in accord with Fatah, while Palestinian groups left of Fatah tend to be very much like Peace Now.

On that gamut, I suspect most people who don’t have a nationalist stake in either side will be somewhere between Fatah and Peace Now. That’s the view everyone pays lip service to, at least: negotiations between Israel and Palestine should resume, the Palestinians deserve self-determination, the occupation should end, Israel has the right to defend itself from terrorism, and Palestine should crack down on armed groups other than what will become the state. The exact details differ, but that’s what most people at least pretend to support.

On both sides, the situation has gotten to the same point the African-American civil rights movement did in the early 1960s. Nobody claims to be for terrorism or for continuing the occupation, except a few people in the minority on both sides. But nobody will do anything about either; the Palestinian center has no political party to turn to, leaving only Hamas and Fatah to clash with each other, and the Israeli center is both too spineless to try to end the occupation and too politically weak lately to succeed even if it tried.

Naturally, people on both sides will object to including each other in the entire gamut. To Israelis, including a party that calls for the destruction of Israel is repugnant. Likewise, to Palestinians it’s unacceptable to consider seriously people like Avigdor Lieberman, who has called for bombing civilian targets in Palestine and believes Arab-Israelis are traitors, or settlers who believe it’s their God-given right to stay in the West Bank and to oppress the Palestinian inhabitants of the area.

From a more idealistic centrist point of view, those views can be safely excluded, just as such extremes as fascism and communism are excluded from political considerations nowadays. However, from a realist point of view, democrats never excluded fascism and communism while they were politically alive. It so happens that large numbers of people are taking seriously ideologies that call for massacres or even wholesale exterminations. People rarely take other views seriously because they want to; usually they do because they have to without appearing irrelevant. In the current political climate of the debate over the Arab-Israeli conflict, anyone who doesn’t consider the reality of views ranging from those of Islamic Jihad to those of the most militant settlers is engaging in some form of preaching to the choir.

monday musing: f— adam gopnik

I wrote an essay a few years ago that contained, in the opening sentence, the phrase ‘fuck you, Roger Angell’. It wasn’t out of any deep animosity toward Roger Angell, simply a momentary rage brought on by his preface to E.B. White’s wonderful book, Here Is New York. Some of the things Mr. Angell says in that preface are perfectly fine, actually. But then he dips into a form of nostalgia that I find intolerable, especially when it is directed at New York City. New York has many problems and it isn’t hiding them, just walk down the street. But if nothing else, it is a city that has never succumbed to the nostalgists—just the opposite. It runs them down, runs through them, runs past them and keeps going and that’s always been the best way to refute nostalgia.

Maybe it has something to do with The New Yorker and the identity it thinks it is trying to foster and protect, but a thought came to mind while reading a recent ‘Talk of the Town’ and that thought was thus: ‘fuck you, Adam Gopnik’. Gopnik’s piece is sensible in many respects but, in the end, it can’t help dipping into the same vein of nostalgia that Roger Angell mines and which, I’d like to suggest, misunderstands something fundamental about New York City.

When Angell writes about New York City he writes in the tone of elegy, of something that ‘once was’. He imagines people living in New York and saying things like “remember when…?” and “wasn’t this where…?”. His sense of E.B. White’s book is that it is lament for what has been lost and for what New York City used to be. This is how Angell describes E.B. White’s mood: “Even as he looked at the great city, he was missing what it had been.” The culmination of Angell’s analysis is that the title of E.B. White’s book should have been Here ‘Was’ New York. As Angell puts it, White “wanted it back again, back the way it was.”

I submit, though, that this is not at all the mood in which White wrote his book. Witness E.B. White’s own Forward to Here is New York:

“This piece about New York was written in the summer of 1948 during a hot spell. The reader will find certain observations to be no longer true of the city, owing to the passage of time and the swing of the pendulum. I wrote not only during a heat wave but during a boom. The heat has broken, the boom has broken, and New York is not quite so feverish now as when this piece was written. The Lafayette Hotel, mentioned in passing, has passed despite the mention. But the essential fever of New York has not changed in any particular, and I have not tried to make revisions in the hope of bringing the thing down to date. To bring New York down to date, a man would have to be published with the speed of light—and not even Harper is that quick. I feel that it is the reader’s, not the author’s, duty to bring New York down to date; and I trust it will prove less a duty than a pleasure.”

That is the mood in which E.B. White wrote his brilliant little piece on New York City, and it is notable in two of its aspects. One, in that New York is characterized by its essential fever. And Two, in that New York cannot be ‘brought down to date’ but by those who are living in it at any specific moment. And I don’t think anyone who ever wrote a Forward like that can also be said to want New York ‘back the way it was’.

Now, on the face of it, Adam Gopnik’s ‘Talk of The Town’ from January 8th, 2007 is less overtly nostalgic than Roger Angell’s preface. Gopnik is commenting on Mayor Bloomberg’s speech about the future of New York City and its infrastructural needs looking forward to 2030. While lauding the mayor’s farsightedness, Gopnik notes that the speech did not address the issue of New York in terms of its ‘soul’, in terms of the ‘kind’ of city that we want New York to be. As Gopnik says, “New York, as generations have been taught by the late Jane Jacobs, is a self-organizing place that fixes itself. But let the additional truth be told that though the life of the block is self-organizing, the block itself that lets life happen was made by the hand of a city planner. As the mayor said, and knows, what we want the city to look like in 2030 will depend on the rules we make now.”

That’s true and we do need to think about what we want the city to be. Cities don’t happen simply by mistake, they need to be planned for. City government is something. It does something. Gopnik is right about that. But he also says, “For the first time in Manhattan’s history, it has no bohemian frontier. Another bookstore closes, another theater becomes a condo, another soulful place becomes a sealed residence. These are small things, but they are the small things that the city’s soul clings to.”

Forget the fact that Mr. Gopnik reveals himself to have a pitifully small radius for New York experience (I suspect the man has never been to Queens). More fundamentally, he, like Angell, has misunderstood the essential thrust of White’s point about New York and the essential fever. It is as if Angell and Gopnik have a snapshot of New York in their memory and then they go about judging New York according to that snapshot. The degree to which New York approximates that snapshot is the degree to which it has preserved its soul. The degree to which it is indistinguishable from that snapshot is the degree to which it has lost it.

But this is the wrong way to conceptualize the essence of New York. New York City is ruthless and depressing. It destroys itself and remakes itself without pausing long enough to reflect on the consequences (just think of Penn Station). As Gopnik suggests, we could all stand to think more about what makes New York work and what doesn’t. On the other hand, that is the cost of the ‘essential fever’. New York is not a museum of itself, at least not yet. The corner store might turn into a massive development tomorrow. Maybe there is a limit, a point at which New York loses its soul in the tumult. But I don’t think we know what that is. The problem with Angell and Gopnik is that they think they do. They think they have the snapshot of New York in their mind’s eye that defines the limits and contours of its soul. They think they know New York as such. They think they know what it is supposed to be.

In the end, I prefer the trust of E.B. White. He knows there is something special about New York but he doesn’t know the specifics. He knows that New York runs in cycles of boom and bust but he doesn’t pretend to know where it will go next. For the moment, he believes in the essential fever and he is willing to admit that that essential fever will always move farther and faster than anything he could track. He assumes that the future will simply be an update of where the essential fever has gone for the next decade, the next generation, the next era.

The saddest thing, perhaps, is that we can’t really legislate or plan for the essential fever. We don’t really know what it is that makes New York what it is. We just know that here it is, here is New York.

Below the Fold: Suspicion-less Searches: From Paranoia to Policy on a Boston Subway

The trek to downtown Boston from Jamaica Plain, the city neighborhood where I live and where once lived the mighty maestro Serge Koussevitzky and the mendacious James Michael Curley, is a rather mundane affair. Thanks to Michael Dukakis and his far-sighted technocratic flair, a subway line now serves us instead of a broken-down trolley line. Actually the subway line consists of an extension of an older line that used to end in Roxbury, the home of the largest African-American population in the city and the birthplace of Malcolm X. It passes that way no more, heading instead to where the city’s white people live or to where people of various colors are gentrifying neighborhoods like mine.

I arrived at the Stony Brook station, a brick and steel structure wearing its twenty years well, and what to my irritated eyes should appear but four cops and a dog set up to stop and search the bags of passengers of their choosing. As befits a true American, I averted my eyes and slinked by, but it got my Irish up, as my Grandmother used to say. So I turned to assay the situation once I had safely passed the turnstile. They had nabbed a suspect, a young college student with scruffy hair and a menacing book bag over his shoulder. It was all very low key. One of the cops was the local greeter and diverter. The other three, festooned in black jodhpurs, black boots, black shirts and black jackets with “Transit Police” written in big white letters on their backs, all of which I take to be a new police high fashion statement for maximum intimidation or simply the product of a Versace-jaded uniform maker, stood by the explosives residue sniff machine with Fido, a reassuring golden Labrador on a leash. If the dog had been a German shepherd… well I am sure by now you get the idea.

I got off at Back Bay Station, and this time, there were six cops standing by the entrance to the subway, conveniently located 75 feet from the Dunkin’ Donuts stand. Half of them were in the ersatz Versace outfits; the other three were in regular Boston police garb. No Fido, no sniff machine. They were just watching when I passed.

Suspicion-less Searches Are Legal

Welcome to America, where all of this is now right and proper. Yes, indeed, it is constitutional to stop and search persons entering or on mass transit without any reasonable suspicion that they are concealing something illegal like an explosive device. It started in New York City. Boston simply copied New York City’s guidelines, which had been declared constitutional by the federal 2nd circuit court of appeals, and at the former Governor Mitt Romney’s imperial demand, instituted a local stop and search process.

You can refuse to have your bag searched. But then you must leave the station, or suffer arrest for trespassing. The logic of the federal appeals court is quite interesting for what it reveals about our new Orwellian world. Because everyone is searchable without any judgment of suspicion on the police’s part, it is legal. The 4th amendment guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure that in many areas of law restricts police searches to those whom they suspect of a crime or who arouse suspicion of criminal intent no longer applies to subway and bus riders. Any city that wants to conduct “suspicion-less” searches on their mass transit can. The judicial trick is that because no one is under suspicion, everyone can be under suspicion. Anyone’s rights can be violated so long as everyone’s rights can be violated. Call it equal opportunity rights violation.

Why can “the state” do this? Another extraordinary piece of legal legerdemain: who is the state if not the representative of the citizens? Well, guess again. The state, like the corporation, that other brilliant piece of Philadelphia lawyering, is a legal person with “interests.” It also has “special needs.” When the state decides it needs to violate our rights to protect us, in this case from terrorism, so it can, as long as it does so indiscriminately. The Appeals Court in Brendan MacWade versus Raymond Kelly (460 F.3d 260 U.S. App.) found the fact that New York’s and now Boston’s suspicion-less stop and search operations are made to seem “random, undefined, and unpredictable,” so that the terrorists won’t catch on, an attractive feature of the policing at whatever subway station where the police find themselves. Now that would a first – color-blind justice in America. I don’t believe it. Further the court seems unaware of the fear such tactics create in ordinary persons feel when they find cops in their face unexpectedly, dressed in black and equipped with guns, a machine, and a dog, and demanding that they surrender their bags.

What’s good for courts is bad for people. You are not even permitted to develop a normal expectation, as in airports, that you will be searched. It is the perfect counter-terrorism. Like they used to say about slavery, the key is to make them stand in fear.

The suspicion-less stop and searches don’t even have to work. Don’t bother us with details, the Appeals Court says in MacWade. Quoting from a 1990 Supreme Court decision, the Appeals Court says that the decision to stop and search without suspicion of wrongdoing should be left up to the state whose agents “have a unique understanding of, and responsibility for, limited public resources.” It concludes that it is not part of the Court’s charge to assess the effectiveness of a program. It only passes on whether a program is a reasonably effective means of addressing the problem at hand, and then, the presumption is that the state knows best.

This notion really sets the mind in motion. Suppose a city is facing a drought, and the water commissioner decides that the most reasonably effective way of preserving the water supply is turning off everyone’s water. Why not? He is the commissioner after all, an agent of the state. Who know best the problem and the solution? Suppose a police commissioner determined that the most reasonable way to catch a posse of drug pushers was to barricade them in their houses until they gave up. Should they die of starvation, would the court go after the police commissioner or decide that state’s special needs entitled the commissioner take action as s/he thought fitting? Or as once was the case in Philadelphia with the group called Move, when police decided in May 1985, that they couldn’t serve them with a warrant. They bombed the house, killing eleven people inside, and set a neighborhood afire. Public safety, the city argued, demanded it. The city paid restitution to sixty-two families burned out of their homes, and even compensation to two Move survivors, but no police officer, or mayor, was ever brought to trial.

Measures for Social and Self-Defense

In suspicion-less searches, remember the state too asserts its special needs, and they are of the best kind: terrorist threats to public safety and national security. The appeals court in MacWade took the state’s agents in the New York case, including former White House anti-terrorism expert Richard Clarke, as the authorities best able to judge what is necessary. And, aside from requiring a formal showing that the solutions fit the problems that threaten the state’s special needs, the courts will set aside usual constitutional scruples, and not even ask whether the actions work or not. And you thought the Sun King and his kind were dead.

It turns out that in Boston at least, it is a good thing for the Commonwealth that it doesn’t have to prove effectiveness. According to reporter Mac Daniel in the January 31,2007 Boston Globe, the cops have stopped and searched 2500 people between October 10, 2006 and December 31, 2006. No explosive devices and no weapons. Of the 27 positive initial hits, between the sniff machine and the sniffing dogs, they were sorted out as benign. Among the things that make you sniff-positive, it turns out, are hand crème and asthma medication. Did you ever think your 4th Amendment rights could be violated for using Vaseline Intensive Care?

The Massachusetts ACLU notes that the number of searches is “infinitesimally small,” and calls suspicion-less stops and searches “a pretend security measure.” An odd position, it seems to me. Would they prefer that more persons be stopped and searched and have their constitutional rights violated?

The Massachusetts chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, according to Jeffrey Feuer, is eschewing a direct court challenge until or unless a really favorable case comes along. Why precipitate at this point a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that holds suspicion-less stops and searches constitutional, seems the reason. Instead they are working with state legislators on a law requiring the transit authority to show what there are doing, whether it technically can catch dangerous explosives, and how much it is costing. They hope that the transit authority will be forced to abandon the program on the grounds that it is both ineffective and very costly.

In the meantime, the Massachusetts ACLU website offers advice as to what to do if you are stopped by the police. They are good for any occasion, so keep them on the refrigerator with the picture of your Fido:

o Think carefully about your words, movement, body language, and emotions.
o Don’t get into an argument with the police.
o Remember, anything you say or do can be used against you.
o Keep your hands where the police can see them.
o Don’t run. Don’t touch any police officer.
o Don’t resist even when you believe you are innocent.
o Don’t complain on the scene or tell the policy they’re wrong or that you’re going to file a complaint.
o Do not make any statements regarding the incident.
o Ask for a lawyer immediately upon your arrest.

The Lawyer’s Guild adds a practical touch. Go to their website and download a sheet containing handouts that can be cut into little, business-size cards. They read:

“To Whom It May Concern: I am handing you this card because I choose to exercise my right to remain silent and to not answer your questions. If I am detained I request to immediately be allowed to contact an attorney. I will exercise my right to refuse to sign anything until I am allowed to speak with my attorney.”

Carry this card at all times. You never know when you’ll get lucky and be the tenth person hustling after that train. Random and indiscriminate, it can happen to you two or more times on the same day. Do keep multiple cards handy. Of course, do not touch them with hand crème or put them next to your asthma inhalator.

It goes without saying that shouldn’t pet Fido, or, according to the ACLU, the police officer. For those of you who are opposed to losing your constitutional rights, have authority issues, or just have a thing about uniforms, keep your head down, keep walking, and don’t get aroused.

Letter From Beirut

by Waleed Hazbun

February 4, 2007
Beirut, Lebanon

Last week, after much delay, I finally landed in Beirut where I spend 2007 teaching at the American University of Beirut.

Walking down the streets of the Hamra district of Beirut I think to myself that more cities across the Arab world should feel this way. Even as the city is re-dividing itself politically and police and security forces stand watch over public spaces, key buildings, and the residences of leading politicians, Beirut remains a urban, cosmopolitan environment. By invoking this term I do not refer to the fancy shopping districts with Euro-American name brand shops, the haut-hipsters hanging out a Starbucks (or even the much cooler De Prague), or the late night dancing parties going on at the trendy clubs. Beirut is a costal Levantine city that has never been cut off from other Mediterranean cities and trade routes nor fully isolated from its Arab/Islamic hinterland. It is not a show case ‘modern’ city built next to a museumfied medieval era ‘madina,’ like Tunis nor an artificial metropolis emerging out of a desert landscape due to royal patronage or the flows of petrodollars. It is more like Istanbul and how cities on coast of Mandate Palestine might have developed in some alterative reality.

I’m not exactly an expert on the topic but Beirut’s urban form seems to be a heterotopic mosaic in which each neighborhood developed from an interactive fusion between particular local features and ties to other places near and far. The Hamra district is located near the 140+ year old American University of Beirut (AUB). It is packed with bookstores and cafes and a few stores and restaurants that cater to its staff and faculty. The campus itself its beautifully located on a hill near the edge of the water which sparkles deep blue and makes a stunning site from many locations on its treed campus. Through the AUB the Hamra district has maintained ties to universities and intellectual centers across the world including a legacy of ties with Princeton. While less diverse than in the past, AUB’s students still come from all parts of the Lebanon as well as many parts of the Arab and developing world. Until the summer 2006 war, as the Provost recently explained, it even had a few dozen students from the United States. Its graduates are spread across the globe. Ironies of ironies, maybe, the new US representative to the UN is and AUB graduate, where he will work with Lebanon’s newly appointed representative who happened to be the chairman of the AUB department (Political Studies and Public Administration) where I will begin teaching next week.

These days Hamra is also being shaped by the current political standoff between the ‘March 14’ forces that control the government and the ‘March 8’ opposition that is seeking to bring down the PM and/or force him to create a ‘unity government’ that gives forces like Hezbollah (allied with some populist and pro-Syrian forces) a veto power of major political decisions. The ‘March 14’ forces are a motley crew (that includes right wing Christians, centrist Sunni Muslims, and a few democratic leftists) cobbled together in the large shadow of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri who used his own personal wealth and business ties to help rebuilt this city destroyed by a the 1975-90 civil war. While a diverse district, Hamra is also historically a Sunni Muslim neighborhood where the current Prime Minister Fuad Sinora and the home of the late Hariri (where his family continues to lead the political movement he built) live. You can easily tell where they live by the concrete barricades and roadblocks that limit traffic near them and are manned by security forces from the interior ministry controlled by members of the ‘March 14’ coalition.

Other security forces and units from the national army (viewed as closer to the pro-Syrian politicians and dominated by Shia who are generally aligned with oppositions parties such as Amal and Hezbollah) are watching guard over the opposition-constructed tent city surrounding the Prime Minster’s downtown headquarters. These guards are spread across the city, having taken to the streets after the disturbing riots that took place at the Beirut Arab University, quite a long ways south from the Hamra district but still on the Western side of town bordering the shia dominated neighborhoods at the southern end of Beirut. In the wake of those riots a one night curfew was announced in an effort to defuse the tensions between rival political movements who find active supporters and cadre on the various campuses. The government even declared that all educational institutions had to shut down for a few days, delaying the start of the spring term at AUB.

I haven’t been over the ‘Christian’ East Beirut (the home of much of the fancy restaurant and night club scene), where they have their own tensions and fears due to the long string of assassinations and small scale bombing that followed the mass moving in the spring of 2005 to send the Syrian troops and intelligence networks back home. At the same time the Christian community is currently divided between followers of the March 14 forces and the populist former general Aoun who says he represents an alterative to the currupt, sectarian elites and has aligned himself with Hizballah in a effort to become the next President of the country (who must be a Maronite Christian).

The other night I read a profile of President John Waterbury in a recent issue (Jan 24) of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. It’s written by a Beirut/Damascus-based youngish Princeton grad who is a stringer for the NY Times. She often files culture/society/human interest stories. It’s not such a great piece in that it doesn’t really cover some angles, such as that some AUB students were not happy that JW suspended the counting of the student election results because there were protests outside the University gates. Some viewed this action as a suspension of democracy on campus, though the article gives him credit for defusing the situation where political protests by rival parties were taking place just outside the University gates. After the recent riots (which happened weeks after the essay was written) we are all the more sensitive to the issue, but who knows what policies would best prevent riots past and future. Internal security forces now cluster in front of the AUB Main Gate and help provide gate security. This might also be because Prime Minister Sinora lives across the street from campus. We also discovered, while getting Michelle a campus ID, that AUB has written a new policy for guests on campus. Not clear what it is, but I guess its a sign that the administration is working the situation.

The best part of the PAW article is that JW notes that every AUB class has its ‘war’ stories, some lived through wars, others riots, some student protests and sit-ins etc… (Remember we are making the 50th anniversary of the high-water era of Nasserist and Arab nationalist mobilization of the Arab street.) JW makes the point of saying that dealing with these events is part of his job and part of the AUB experience, in a sense they don’t react as if each represents a crisis, but an recurrent, almost expected sort of event that plans exist for. He notes that EVERY year ‘come hell or high water’ AUB has graduated a class. They deal with situations one day at a time. If they must close, they will for just the days they need, then they expect to get back open because its the duty of the place. In what I think is the best line of the interview, he notes ‘This show goes on.’

As I begin to sense the political tensions, that the political crisis will not likely be over soon, I have watched some of Hezbollah’s al Manar TV, complete with its slick American political campaign style negative ads mocking the achievements of Hariri (noting the corruption and massive debt that were endemic to his mode of operation)..and its pretty clear they have a critique of the govt that wont just go away, let alone their ability to gain outside support that in terms of effectiveness may match the $1 billion of so that the US is throwing behind the current govt. Who knows if regional tensions and the a New Arab/Middle Eastern cold war will tear it apart as it have other parts of the region. It will not stand isolated like the Gulf states under the security umbrella of the 7th fleet bolstered by the abundant petrodollars and financial returns.

Nevertheless, while I fear the implications of the coming Bush admin confrontation with Iran and the continuing fallout of its disastrous regional politices, the local political situation in Lebanon doesn’t seem to bother me, it only really saddens me. Maybe it’s the Baltimore still in me, the appreciation of the dwellers, entrepreneurs, and intellectuals who make their lives in that scrappy, rundown, post-industrial ruin of a formerly grand 19th century city that had its last peak, like Beirut, in the 1950s. This all leads me to fear the effects of over-gentrification, of global finance remodeling an urban space for tourism and hyper-consumerism. I have heard people mention, and seem to fear, Beirut becoming over-shadowed by the Gulf where they can buy whole libraries and museums and build “global cities” out of artificial islands, petrodollars, and imported labor and technology. Beirut might have lost some of its shine built in the last few years before its was dulled and scraped by the war and the resulting political turmoil. But it seems to me, that everything that is really interesting about this city, Hamra, and AUB are still here and will go on. It need not become again the ‘Paris, or Geneva etc.. of the Middle East.’ It likely won’t. Rather, what the Middle East needs now, and it needs it to survive out the current crisis, is a ‘Beirut’ with its difficult pluralism, intellectual debate, always inventive entrepreneurialism, and often splinted contradictory cosmopolitism.

Waleed Hazbun is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University.

My Perverse Critic: Marbeck Valerian

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 and at the NLA.

Apparently Patrick White used to build himself up into a state about bad crits of his books. However, the vegetation in his garden, and across the road in Centennial Park, did not turn yellow from an excess of spleen, and Patrick kept on writing. White knew bad crits were inevitable but, after dragging The Tree of Man out of his asthmatically-wracked body back on the farm that Kylie Tennant once called Frog Hollow, I don’t guess he was exactly ecstatic to read A. D. Hope’s final reference to his prose style, in a now notorious review, as ‘pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge’. White often had this kind of reception. Later success only encouraged some to thwack away even more. Hal Porter described White’s autobiographical Flaws In The Glass as ‘high-camp mysticism and low-camp waspishness’. White returned the favour, calling Porter ‘a sac of green pus throbbing with jealousy’. Fun in its way, and a predictable stoush of the kind familiar to literature the world over. [See Angela Bennie’s Crème de la Phlegm Unforgettable Australian Reviews The Miegunyah Press 2006, from which the above examples are taken, for more examples of Australian arts criticism.]

The old, old story. Artists make the art and put it out into the world. Its fate is indeterminate, whether well received, given the silent treatment or scorned. Anyone who gets into a life in art and thinks it is going to be any different for them is being hopelessly naive.

Marbeck Valerian is my imaginary name for all the critics one is going to come across who will misunderstand work, misrepresent it, or land on it like an Exocet missile and proclaim it the best thing since sliced bread, probably the worst fate of all.

Eduard Hanslick, origin of Wagner’s Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, doyen of music critics in nineteenth-century Europe, simply could not connect with the contemporary masterpieces that were set before him. All the learning in the world can’t help a critical sensibility out of the impasse that comes when a mind thinks itself attuned to the spirit of the times. Which in Hanslick’s case meant Brahms. Wagner, Bruckner and Tchaikowsky were beyond him—Bruckner 8: ‘At long last, the Finale—which, with its baroque themes, its confused structure and inhuman din, strikes us only as a model of tastelessness . . .’ I suppose you can get some entertainment value out of this kind of criticism. But when your reading audience starts looking forward to seeing who, say, to take two names from the past, Kenneth Tynan or Auberon Waugh are going to eviscerate in their weekly column, something has gone askew in the relationship between artist, critic and audience. Part of the problem arises from the thinning dividing line between reviewing—one person’s opinion—and criticism, which is meant to be a more considered and analytical overview of cultural product.

Hanslick was wrong from the start, to quote someone who got into troubled waters through pride. However, this is really the way it must be. And why should art have an easy time of it? The teacher, the nurse, the miner and the police constable are not going to have an easy time of it. No. The poor and the oppressed are certainly not going to have an easy time of it either, pace the look-at-how-I’m-suffering-unlike-the-rest-of-the-world tone of some confessional verse. What is so special about artists that they should be given a dispensation from the vexations others encounter, when journalists can be murdered for simply trying to write the truth? The history of art is prolix with attacks on great works of art and grotesque misreadings of its nature. It would be the shortest of perspectives to expect anything else. The ideal, the aesthetically beautiful, must have swum through muck before it has a chance of landing on calmer historical shores. Metaphorically, art is always swimming the Hellespont in its Byronic aspiration towards the sublime, or the nihilist’s sublime denied. Carping criticism is just one of the many hurdles to be faced along the way, hurdles that change the perspectives with which we look at the art we admire, or the art we do not like, or do not understand.

There is a problem specific to poetry: mistaken thinking about poetry by the general public. Misuse of the word ‘poetic’ is so common as to be beyond repair. Proper poetry dives into the world, takes in its multifariousness, its roughnesses and tragedies, its joy at beauty, even as the poet grabs on to the broken glass shards of the Muse’s patchy visitations. ‘Poetic’ is not another word for nice, kind, sedate, palatable. Between top-heavy pronouncements from various spots around the publishing globe and the general public’s indifference to the real poetic, falls the shadow, Cynara, of the individual writer’s efforts to get him or herself understood on a proper footing.

It’s true, as Robert Hughes has said—a critic has to have a harsh side, otherwise all you get is blandout. That apart, critics will come in many guises. One will behave like Stalin, casting the unchosen to outer darkness. Another will gather in a sheaf of sensibilities with an almost creative zeal. A few imply they have read everything and therefore their commentaries come with an air of supernal wisdom. Nothing of the kind, of course. Then there are zealous attenders of conferences on Bakhtin and Benjamin who duly proceed to force-feed any perceptions they might have through the mindset of their heroes. More than a few may as well come with ‘agenda approaching’ branded on their foreheads for all the subtlety used to spruik friends or pet theories. Some see it as their solemn duty to spend a lifetime rubber stamping status quo fodder. What to say about the opaque wall of French deconstructive criticism that towered briefly across the literary landscape. So-called New Criticism, Pound’s boosterism, Leavis’ purple prose about Lawrence . . . and so on, and on. Personally, I can’t think of any critics with whom I am in general agreement about literature or art. When reading all these people you can get an interesting perspective, learn new things about art and artists, enjoy the erudition, if worn lightly.  However, in art, it is essential not to let others do the thinking for you. Perhaps that’s even more important with artists you admire and who write on art too. I often disagree with some of my favourite artists. Wagner seems misguided on all manner of subjects. ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’ and ‘All art is quite useless’ are two statements from Auden and Wilde that irritate me.

So, merrily we roll along, as the musical has it. Well, good criticism is important. We must have it, along with the self-serving or blinkered kind. The rare piece of literary criticism that proclaims the arrival of something important is notable only for its scarcity. Poets who write poetry criticism—and there are a lot who have, or do—are on difficult ground. In The Undiscovered Country Poetry in the Age of Tin [Columbia University Press 2005, 343] William Logan calls John Berryman ‘a brilliant critic’—which might very well be true—but I would much rather Berryman wrote less criticism and worked on his poetry more.

Just as well art finds its own timeline, which is not criticism’s.

Marbeck Valerian may be your long-term friend. His/her misunderstandings are the seeds from which art begins its proper journey through time’s unpredictable mangle.


          The Artist’s Agony Aunt Replies

Brobdingnag into Lilliput doesn’t go—
Work that out early if you want to keep
Your gold estate
From predations by those CEOs and phonies
Who’ve risen to the level of baloney.

Art is more important than their blather,
But only you and the happy few will know
Why you’ll be intransigent and stroppy
When they’re expecting parrot words to serve
For beauties and their furies here conferred.

Art cannot wait for being understood
When blood has, by the Muse, been dispossessed.
They’ll want you to sell short your better part
For slaps on the back and lower ranks of things
Where they have dumped their burden without wings.

For all the money, politics and kudos
Others have for meaning in their lives,
When summing up a goodness that survives,
The gift of art, however hard or strange,
Is worthy of a life none with you may change.

Written 1996

Empire with No Clothes: Lessons for India from America

If you are thinking the United States and George W. Bush you are right too, but I am thinking of something closer to my home in India, which may not be that dissimilar. The felling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in central Baghdad and the proclamation of victory in the war against Iraq seems a distant memory. What Bush and his advisers forgot was to be ready to manage the empire after the conquest. Sadly they forgot to take their clothes, and were completely exposed, caught rather embarassingly with their pants down. Three years on George Bush stands as the emperor with no clothes as anarchy reigns in Iraq and the costs of war to his own people rise, be it the loss of life or the drain on resources. The superpower humbled by its own incompetence.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with happenings in India? Well, something unusual happened last week: an ageing Indian company, no less than a hundred years old took over a much younger and bigger company in Europe. The Tata Steel takeoever  of the Anglo-Dutch behemoth Corus Steel was greeted with a chorus of euphoria in India, not dissimilar to the euphoria in America after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. India, some claim, is now a superpower spreading its economic might and empire, while the Tata’s are the army, leading the triumphant charge. A scratch below the surface of triumph conceals a reality check which all in the euphoric chorus would be well advised to take heed of.

Can India possibly claim to be superpower, the new emperor, just because some of it’s corporates are taking over firms abroad. Corporate might hasn’t turned into well-being for the majority of the people who still languish in poverty, illiteracy, hunger: basically dismal human conditions. Even possessing a few nuclear weapons doesn’t change this fact. And if half a country’s population cannot read, feed or cloth itself, what does that say about the empire? Even the American empire seems hollow when it is estimated that one in six people in the US is functionally illiterate, a large number of them live in poverty, where poverty is often a function of race, and where hurricanes like Katrina leave the mighty government fumbling for solutions.

But let’s return again to to the Indian empire. What of the valiant army, the foot soldiers, the Tata Group in this case. Are they creatings trong empires or merely those in name but no substance? A closer examination of some of the facts about this takeoever and takeovers in general may shed some light.

To begin, creating an empire, whether corporate or political costs money. And someone has to pay. The Tata’s have paid $12.1 billion for Corus. Money that is borrowed and has to be paid back, with interest. Will the new conglomorate be profitable enough to make their investment worthwhile?

One may argue that Tata Steel is now a giant, the fifth largest steel company in the world. But giants aren’t always profitable or successful. Look what happened to Corus. Look elsewhere at what is happening to other gigantic firms: General Motors is struggling, so is Ford. And these are legendary firms, which we were told, have sales in excess of the GDP of many developing countries.

But Tata Corus may be different. Possibly. Note, however, the fact that Tata Steel has acquired a firm which is much less efficient than itself, both in terms of profit margins which are about half of Tata’s and in terms of costs, which are much higher especially the costs of labour. Thus, the immediate outcome for the combined entity is a fall in profitability and efficieny from the level of Tata Steel. Think the outcome for Germany after the more prosperous West united with the less prosperous East, and you’ll get the picture. Thus, a lot of hard work is needed to pull Tata Corus up. Is Ratan Tata’s homework ebtter than George W. Bush’s, or is it an act of bravado based more on hope than on hard economic calculus? Have the Tata’s over-stretched themselves in order to ‘ win their battle’ (prompted by a jingoistic nation and it’s over enthusiastic media) for Corus, against CSN from Brazil? Groege Bush and his army are certainly over-stretched in Iraq, and feeling the heat. Even the highest quality steel can melt under extreme temperatures.

What makes things even more complicated for the Tata’s with Corus is that steel is a sunset industry in the West. The demand for steel and the production of steel in the UK, which is the home of Corus, has fallen steadily over the last thirty years. Steel in a sunrise industry in emerging markets. So it makes sense acquiring firms in say China and Brazil but does it make the same sense acquiring an Anglo-Dutch firm which basically services small and shrinking markets. Again, time will tell, but the outcome is far from certain.

An investigation into the technical side reveals evidence from economic literature on the subject suggesting that mergers and acquisitions do not always lead to higher profits for the new company, or indeed higher share prices. In fact, a lot of evidence from the industrialized countries, where a majority of mergers and acquisitions have hitherto occurred, shows the opposite. What does happen for certain is a downsizing of jobs.

Acquiring a firm in a different country brings its own adjustment problems. A probable clash of managerial and worker cultures. A resistance to control by a firm seen to be from the developing world. Again the analogy with what the Americans are facing in Iraq is obvious.

If this is sounding very pessimistic, let it not. It is not meant to be. The Tata’s have achieved a lot, both in India and abroad, especially under the able stewardship of Ratan Tata. In fact, some of their earlier acquisitions of steel firms in Thailand and Singapiore  made good sense. As did their takeoever of the bankrupt Daewoo Commercial Vehicles at a very reasonable price. India as a country, too, has made great strides over the last sixty years. But proclamations of conquest, and of empire, or of superpower status seem premature. Almost like hubris before a fall. Just like Iraq 2003. Caution is the better part of valor, and the enthusiasts would do well to temper their emotions, and let those in charge do their homework dilligently, without the pressure of jingoism and nationalism. The outcomes, in that case, are likely to be way superior.

It would seem wiser to be in a situation where one is all dressed up with nowhere to go, than to rush towards an empire with no clothes.