This Human Season

From The Christian Science Monitor:

Book_20 Literature is full of midlife crises, but few characters have as good a reason to indulge as Kathleen Moran. The mother of four has nothing but contempt for her alcoholic husband, who likes to boast about his imaginary exploits at the corner pub; her part-time job is drying up and money is tight; one of her children is in prison for killing a police officer; and there’s a giant hole in her living room ceiling where a soldier put his foot through it while searching her home. Said home is located in Belfast in 1979, and her son is a member of the Irish Republican Army.

This Human Season, Louise Dean’s second novel, is set during the run-up to the hunger strikes in the Maze prison that killed 10 strikers and were part of a worsening wave of terrorist violence during Northern Ireland’s 30-year “Troubles.” The bleak, grimly funny novel is the story of two 39-year-olds, Moran and one of the prison guards in her son Sean’s H-block, and gives new meaning to the phrase scatological humor.

More here.

Godmothers of The Namesake

From Harvard Magazine:

Mira1 Mira Nair ’79 met Sooni Taraporevala ’79 in the Lowell House dining room in the fall of 1976. The two women, both of Indian descent, became friends and, nine years later, began working together on the 1988 film Salaam Bombay!—Nair as director, Taraporevala as screenwriter. Later they collaborated on Mississippi Masala (1991) and My Own Country (1998). But none of their movies so directly mirrors their own life experiences as this year’s The Namesake, based on Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel. Having read the book en route, Nair arrived in Taraporevala’s hometown of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in March 2004 and bluntly told the screenwriter, “Sooni, we were born to make this film.”

Even living half a world apart, the two friends worked closely together on The Namesake, thanks to the Internet. “I’d e-mail her scenes every few days,” Taraporevala explains, “while she read the book and marked out her selections—which coincided with mine. We were perfectly in sync.” That process produced the first draft, written in “an insane 11 days,” the screenwriter says, a schedule imposed by Nair’s agent, who needed to take the script to Cannes.

More here.

Taking our leaders at face value

Kurt Kleiner in the Toronto Star:

It’s hard to untangle how actual voters, faced with a live candidate, are affected by the face, partly because their feelings about a candidate’s policies and personality might affect their perceptions.

TonySo Anthony C. Little, a psychologist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, and colleagues decided to use computerized “morphing” techniques to examine the question.

In research published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, they used the faces of candidates from eight real elections in the U.S., New Zealand, and Great Britain, including candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry from the 2004 U.S. presidential election.

Then they used a computer-imaging technique to combine each face with a nondescript male face that had been created by averaging the faces of 10 university students.

The result was a pair of faces that was not recognizable as either candidate, but nevertheless bore a sort of family resemblance to the originals – young, unblemished, they could have been the candidates’ college-age nephews. The altered Bush has narrow-set eyes and a slightly heavy brow, the altered Kerry wide-set eyes and a long face.

Then the researchers asked people to look at the faces and say who they would vote for.

In all eight races, the votes based on composite faces gave the same results as the actual elections.

More here.  [Photo shows Anthony C. Little.]

Arthur Schlesinger, Historian of Power, Dies at 89

Douglas Martin in the New York Times:

Screenhunter_03_mar_01_1904Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the historian whose more than 20 books shaped discussions for two generations about America’s past, and who himself was a provocative, unabashedly liberal partisan, most notably while serving in the Kennedy White House, died Wednesday night in Manhattan. He was 89.

His death, at New York Downtown Hospital, was caused by a heart attack he suffered earlier during a family dinner at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse, his son Stephen said.Twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Mr. Schlesinger exhaustively examined the administrations of two prominent presidents, Andrew Jackson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, against a vast background of regional and economic rivalries. He argued that strong individuals like Jackson and Roosevelt could bend history.

The notes he took for President John F. Kennedy, for the president’s use in writing his history, became, after Mr. Kennedy’s assassination, grist for Mr. Schlesinger’s own account, “A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House.” It won both the Pulitzer and a National Book Award in 1966.

More here.

The Problem With Cosmopolitanism

Mathias Risse reviews Gillian Brock and Harry Brighouse (eds.), The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism, in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

Much has been written on global justice, and new contributions should now take that into account to advance the debate. To illustrate, one position that has by now been well-articulated is that the state is not the exclusive domain of legitimacy. To make progress on the normative status of the state one needs to go beyond that conclusion, lest the reader is left wondering what has been accomplished at all. For instance, [David] Held introduces principles capturing cosmopolitan values and two “meta-principles” from which to argue for them (“autonomy” and “impartialist reasoning”). He concludes that the state “withers away,” a view Held qualifies by saying that what his argument delivers is merely that “states would no longer be regarded as the sole centers of legitimate power within their borders” (p 26). What do we learn? [Allen] Buchanan refutes the view that it is permissible to determine foreign policy exclusively by national interest. He is self-conscious about offering such a refutation since he regards arguments to that effect as obvious (delivered by any form of recognition of human rights), and seems to think the interesting question is to explain why the refuted view persists. (This is a well-reasoned article, but one perhaps better placed in Foreign Policy, to find its appropriate audience.) So what Buchanan rightly finds obvious, given the state of the philosophical literature, Held derives from an elaborate argument. Again, at this stage of the discussion about the legitimacy of states we need more detail to find value in the conclusion that states are not the sole centers of legitimacy.

Tan argues that what he considers cosmopolitan justice and national allegiances can be reconciled. He discusses two objections, one mentioned above. The other is “that the subordination of nationality to cosmopolitan justice fails sufficiently to accommodate people’s national allegiances” (p 166). The response is that it follows from an extension of our common understanding of justice to the global context, “that the . . . priority of (nationally) impartial justice over national allegiances derives necessarily from the purpose and concept of justice” (p 169). However, Miller convincingly argues that “cosmopolitan respect” is consistent with “patriotic concern.” He offers two arguments for thus combining cosmopolitanism and patriotism. “The first is an argument from excessive costs in lost social trust, the second an argument from the need to provide compatriots with adequate incentives to obey the laws on helps to create” (p 134). Or consider other contributions: Blake (2001), Nagel (2005), and Risse (2006), all of which argue that there is something normatively peculiar about shared citizenship in a manner that turns on the particular kind of coerciveness exercised by states, but also acknowledge duties to those who do not belong to the state, duties easily captured by basic respect. So not much is gained from arguing that, on conceptual grounds, some general standpoint of global justice has priority over national allegiances. This is consistent with arguing that that global standpoint delivers the conclusion that individuals ought to acknowledge far-reaching duties to compatriots.

On the ICJ Ruling on Srebrenica

Martin Shaw on the International Court of Justice ruling in favor of Serbia on the Srebrenicia massacre, in openDemocracy:

The ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the case brought by Bosnia-Herzegovina against Serbia, delivered on 26 February 2007, is a compromise judgment, giving something to the Bosnian victims but largely denying the Bosnian genocide and exonerating the Serbian state of its role. Although seen by some western media as a progressive judgment, it is has largely been greeted with dismay by Bosnians and welcomed by apologists for the most reactionary Serbian forces, including those who seem to occupy the comment pages of the Guardian whenever Yugoslav war issues return to the headlines.

This was the major remaining opportunity for an authoritative legal ruling on the Bosnian genocide and Serbia’s role, since former Serbian and Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic’s death deprived the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) of the possibility of ruling on his responsibility. Although the ICTY has found that genocide was committed in Bosnia, especially at Srebrenica in 1995 (when over 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred), and has convicted individuals for their roles in this crime, the ICJ ruling concerned the responsibility of the Serbian state for genocide committed in Bosnia against Muslims and others over the entire period of the Bosnian conflict (1992-95).

In the Guardian, John Laughland applauds the verdict.

The allegations against Milosevic over Bosnia and Croatia were cooked up in 2001, two years after an earlier indictment had been issued against him by the separate international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at the height of Nato’s attack on Yugoslavia in 1999. Notwithstanding the atrocities on all sides in Kosovo, Nato claims that Serbia was pursuing genocide turned out to be war propaganda, so the ICTY prosecutor decided to bolster a weak case by trying to “get” Milosevic for Bosnia as well. It took two years and 300 witnesses, but the prosecution never managed to produce conclusive evidence against its star defendant, and its central case has now been conclusively blown out of the water.

The international court of justice (ICJ) did condemn Serbia on Monday for failing to act to prevent Srebrenica, on the basis that Belgrade failed to use its influence over the Bosnian Serb army. But this is small beer compared to the original allegations. Serbia’s innocence of the central charge is reflected in the court’s ruling that Serbia should not pay Bosnia any reparations – supplying an armed force is not the same as controlling it. Yugoslavia had no troops in Bosnia and greater guilt over the killings surely lies with those countries that did, notably the Dutch battalion in Srebrenica itself. Moreover, during the Bosnian war, senior western figures famously fraternised with the Bosnian Serb leaders now indicted for genocide, including the US general Wesley Clark and our own John Reid. Should they also be condemned for failing to use their influence?

Glitter and Doom

In Culturekiosque:


On a broad scale, the exhibition [Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s at the Met in New York] reminds us that the break between nineteenth and twentieth-century western art was less about a turn from representational works toward abstraction but the refutation of the belief that art, by definition, had something to do with beauty. The Met’s curators have more specific goals: an exploration of Germany at a particular time and place. Germany had been rolling along brilliantly from its formation in 1871 until World War I sent it skidding into a ditch. It took the addition of the worldwide economic depression to bring on National Socialism—the ultimate example of the political cure that was worse than the disease. Art historians are easily seduced by the notion that the art they love is a reflection of a culture and, at its most prescient, a reflection of where a culture, a civilization or an era is heading. So it is easy to look back on these disturbing works and see the signs of putrefaction that would end in National Socialist victory.

But painting is the world’s most biased medium, and it is dangerous to find universal truths from what it shows. To look at what the Met has hung in seven galleries and you’d hardly guess that the Roaring Twenties were often quite fun in Germany—despite the war, the reparations to the victors and the hyperinflation of 1923. The Portrait of Anita Berber (1925) by Otto Dix shows the dancer at twenty-six, two years shy of death by dissipation; wearing an ice-white face of a woman three times her age and flaunting a blood-red dress as if posing for Vogue, she looks every bit the candidate for an early grave, but it must have been a thrill while it lasted: in his memoirs, the boxer Max Schmeling recalls the time that Berber took a table in the crowded dining room of the Adlon—quite the grandest hotel in Berlin—escorted by two young men. Berber ordered three bottles of Veuve Clicquot, opened the diamond broach on her fur and, letting it fall, toasted her companions in the nude.

In Defense of Darwinism

In American Scientist, Richard Bellon reviews Michael Ruse’s Darwinism and Its Discontents.

Ruse argues that the unrelenting controversies that cling to evolution reflect its 18th-century origins. Enlightenment thinkers, including Darwin’s own grandfather, sought a non-Christian alternative history of creation. Evolution, by wrapping the craving for social and cultural advancement in a narrative of biological progress, fit the bill nicely. Any answers to unresolved scientific questions provided by pre-Origin evolutionary theory were, in Ruse’s view, only happy accidents. In that era, conservative Christians were not being paranoid when they interpreted evolution as a dagger pointed directly at their spiritual and cultural authority.

Ruse believes that only with Origin did evolution debut as a fully legitimate scientific theory, one designed primarily to provide rational explanations for the regularities of the physical world, rather than one concerned chiefly with the validation of underlying metaphysical commitments. Darwin had neither the stomach nor the motivation to join fights over worldview, but as he understood acutely, he could never entirely extricate his theory from these battles, as much as he might have wished to do so. Ironically, the more successfully he and his colleagues demonstrated the scientific validity of evolution, the more potent the theory became for extrascientific purposes.

From the moment that Origin became a surprise instant bestseller, Darwin lost direct control over ideas to which his name was (often dubiously) affixed. Although no scientifically literate person rejected evolution by the time of Darwin’s death in 1882, acceptance of natural selection as the chief mechanism in evolution remained a minority view among biologists. Natural selection had legitimate scientific problems, suffering most significantly from the lack of any adequate theory of heredity. Nonetheless Ruse believes that the unwillingness, even (or perhaps especially) among many biologists, to employ evolution as straight science stunted its development as a mature causal theory with natural selection at its heart. Natural selection was scientifically resurrected only in the 1930s with the rise of population genetics. Historians argue over aspects of Ruse’s interpretation of this history. But he is certainly correct to insist that evolutionists of the 19th century and early 20th century bear much of the blame for the ideological baggage that has complicated Darwinism’s place in both science and culture.

One complication is that, for many religious conservatives, evolution in any guise retains the indelible stench of blasphemy, for which creationism is the only fumigant.

Analogies and Justification in the Run Up to the Iraq War

Gustav Seibt on the flaws in reasoning that lead to the Iraq war (originally inthe Süddeutsche Zeitung, translated by Naomi Buck in signandsight) .

Most of those behind the war – the exception being Herfried Münkler – didn’t even concern themselves with Iraq, international law, the chances and risks of a war in the Middle Eastern context. The vast majority of arguments for the war were drawn from European experience of the last two or three generations. Thus, one wrote about the overriding issues such as pacifism and anti-Americanism, appeasement and anti-Semitism, rather than addressing the thing itself.

First and foremost was an attempt to draw broad historical analogies. The fall of Saddam, a desirable enough goal, was compared directly with the fight against Hitler, the democratisation of Iraq with the democratisation of West Germany and Japan after the Second World War and the chance for democratic change throughout the entire Middle East was compared with the end of the East bloc and the quick establishment of civilian democracies afterwards. But virtually nobody had anything to say about the actual domestic situation in Iraq today.

Things developed differently than the expectations of imminent success suggested. And therein lies an almost obscene arrogance that is occasion for a sharp criticism of the West. A country is subjected to absolute misery and with what justification? Memories of our own history. It’s understandable that Iraqi intellectuals fall into a cold rage over this today. But we can assume that these Iraqis have other more pressing concerns. Of course the main responsibility for the disaster is to be borne by the political-military actors who initiated an adventure based on falsified information, unrealistic goals and absurd arrogance. No wonder it went spectacularly wrong. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that rarely was such irresponsible behaviour accompanied by so much empty talk.

The comparison with 1914 is all the more depressing because in 2003, we see again the syndrome of a “Literatentum” – a term coined by Max Weber during the First World War, referring to the phenomena of a body of literature that used critical, aesthetic, definitely non-expert, uninformed superstructures to justify risky decisions in matters of war. A lot was at stake in the First World War as well: culture and civilisation, politics and music, the German spirit and the Western anti-spirit and vice versa – and the “war goals” of an obviously unrealistic, in fact insane blueprint.

An Interview with Alaa Al Aswany

In The Hindu, an interview with Egyptian novelist and activist Alaa Al Aswany.

Looking at the geo-political context of the region and these authoritarian regimes, one wonders if the people of the region feel let down by their rulers. Is this contributing to the rise of fundamentalism? What other factors are playing their part? One of the characters in your novel too becomes a terrorist.

[Aswany] Of course this and other factors are contributing to this phenomenon. Let us take the Egyptian experience, which was quite similar to the Indian experience as they emerged out of colonial domination. Our Saad Zaghlul corresponded with your great Gandhi and our founding fathers believed in secular values and the struggle was both for independence and democracy. Our Delegation (Wafd) and your Congress party shared these ideals. The leadership of the Wafd had devout Muslims and very liberal Muslims and even Coptic Christians in its fold! While you, In India, got democracy after your independence we have been struggling and have now lapsed into long spells of despotic dictatorships. This led to crushing poverty, exploitation, corruption and eventually to terrorism.

Looking at Islam in this context it must be borne in mind that Islam was born in the desert but it found its civilisation away from the desert and thus there exists many interpretations of Islam ranging from an inclusive vision of the religion which is open, tolerant and liberal to less inclusive visions and interpretations. Egypt has always been part of a tolerant stream and that is reflective of our essential national character. But what happened in the late 1970s was a significant turning point in the history of the region. The sudden surge in the price of oil gave unprecedented power to Saudi Arabia. This enabled Saudi Arabia to export its pre-medieval, not-so-inclusive Wahabi vision of Islam to most of the countries in the region. You know the Wahabi vision is a Christmas present to the dictator! It does not encourage dissent against the ruler as long as he is a Muslim. Thus a complex pattern of interlocked factors, including the support these dictators got from outside, led to a steady erosion of liberty and freedom which I believe is at the centre of the woes of this region.

A Debate on the Future of Feminism

Jessica Valenti, of feministing, has a post over at TPM Cafe on generational tension in the feminist movement.

A sorority at DePauw University in Indiana has recently come under fire for dismissing 23 sisters for being “socially awkward.” The women evicted from the Delta Zeta house included every woman who was overweight and the only black, Korean, and Vietnamese members.

The national officers of Delta Zeta claim to have booted the “undesirable” women because of their inability to attract new recruits to the sorority. As I read the unbelievably pathetic excuses given by the sorority for their actions, it occurred to me that in the same way Delta Zeta resorted to active exclusion as a recruitment strategy, mainstream feminists rely on passive exclusionary tactics to keep the movement “pure.”

In discussing this idea with some of my feminist and blogging peers, we all agreed that there’s a generational tension that comes out in subtle, though no less disturbing, ways. Being told you’re too young to speak on a panel (this happened to someone I know at the 2005 NOW conference); being lectured about how your opinions are naïve or misinformed (“you weren’t there!); being relegated to the “young feminist” table or forum at major conferences, having your accomplishments looked on warily because you didn’t “pay your dues,” getting emails about how all of your hard-working feminist blogging is for naught because your logo is sexist (cough, cough). Being a feminist is hard enough without having to defend yourself from attacks from within.

Mainstream feminism may not be kicking any women out of the treehouse, but it’s certainly not lowering the ladder, either.

Katha Pollitt responds:

Jessica, you’re not the first to point out that NOW, Feminist majority and other big feminist groups founded by 1960s activists have had trouble opening up leadership roles to young women. I’m not sure there’s anything particular to women in this–ie anything that justifies your analogy to that idiotic sorority. I mean, come on — Delta Whatsis expelled women who were insufficiently princessy, white, thin and compliant. How is that like not getting to sit on a panel at the ripe old age of 25 or so?

That said, I totally agree with you about the ingrown and resistant culture of organizational feminism, and so do lots of older feminists. Whether it’s generational, or the result of being in backlash-resistance mode for so long, or something about the particular people involved or what, it’s a serious issue. Fact is, a lot of organizations, from corporations to synagogues, find it hard to reframe the mission, hand over power and welcome new leaders with a different style and different allies.

Alon Levy weighs in:

Pollitt rebuts not so much Jessica’s argument as the argument she thinks she should be making. Jessica’s demand for giving young women a seat at the table isn’t some personal power thing, a question of daughters criticizing mothers but mothers not allowed to criticize daughters. It’s a specific demand that the feminist movement stop being so ineffective. Think of her as the Markos Moulitsas of American feminism, without the sanctimony.

When Jessica delves more into specifics, she talks about a lot more than generational tension. The feminist movement engages in scaremongering about Roe vs. Wade, which just doesn’t inspire anyone considering that abortion has been legal in the US for 34 years. NOW’s action alerts are so slow that blogs like Feministing are typically months ahead of them. Organizations like NOW and Feminist Majority use a command and control structure that’s reminiscent of machine politics.

Trips to Nowhere and Everywhere, With Iran’s Poet of the Cinema

From The New York Times:Ten

The films of Abbas Kiarostami are at once simple and enigmatic, guileless in their formal and visual strategies and puzzling in their effects. A central figure in the blossoming of Iranian cinema in the 1990s, and a winner of the top prize at Cannes for “A Taste of Cherry” in 1997, Mr. Kiarostami, who is 66, has now settled into the pantheon of international master filmmakers, a status confirmed by the retrospective of his work that begins at the Museum of Modern Art today. The program, covering more than three decades and including shorts and features, documentaries and instructional films, provides plenty of opportunities to appreciate his plainness and to ponder his mysteries.

In “Ten” (2002) a woman drives through the dense traffic of Tehran, chatting and arguing with passengers who include a pious old woman, a prostitute and the driver’s combative young son.

More here.

Electric switch could turn on limb regeneration

From Nature:Tadpoles

Tadpoles can achieve something that humans may only dream of: pull off a tadpole’s thick tail or a tiny developing leg, and it’ll grow right back — spinal cord, muscles, blood vessels and all. Now researchers have discovered the key regulator of the electrical signal that convinces Xenopus pollywogs to regenerate amputated tails. The results, reported this week in Development, give some researchers hope for new approaches to stimulating tissue regeneration in humans.

Researchers have known for decades that an electrical current is created at the site of regenerating limbs.
To investigate, Michael Levin and his colleagues at the Forsyth Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology in Boston, Massachusetts, sorted through libraries of drug compounds to find ones that prevent tail regeneration but do not interfere with wound healing. One such drug, they found, blocks a molecular pump that transports protons across cell membranes; this kind of proton flow creates a current.

The proton pump could also be used to turn on limb regeneration in older tadpoles that would normally have lost this ability.

More here.