A question of character

Richard Reeves in Prospect Magazine:

Essay_reeves The three key ingredients of a good character are: a sense of personal agency or self-direction; an acceptance of personal responsibility; and effective regulation of one’s own emotions, in particular the ability to resist temptation or at least defer gratification. Progressives are realising that, thus defined, character is intimately linked to many of their social goals—and also that it is unevenly distributed. Indeed, inequality of character may now be as important as inequality of economic resources.

The specific concerns of progressives can be divided into three connected themes: the link between character attributes and life chances; the life chances “penalty” being paid by the children who do not develop a good character; and the growing demand for good character in the labour market.

Recent claims about social mobility in Britain grinding to a halt are exaggerated. But it does seem that the likelihood of a person being upwardly mobile is increasingly influenced by personal qualities such as confidence and self-control. Julia Margo, associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, has assembled an impressive body of evidence linking character to life chances. Her work, which draws on that by Leon Feinstein at the Institute of Education, shows that measured levels of “application”—defined as dedication and a capacity for concentration—at the age of ten have a bigger impact on earnings by the age of 30 than ability in maths. Similarly, what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”—a sense of personal agency—at the age of ten has a bigger impact than reading ability on earnings.

More here.


From The Washington Post:

Book Little Sadia Shepard and her younger brother, Cassim, grew up first in Denver, then Chestnut Hill, Mass., in what she considered to be a wonderful and normal life with three terrific adults: her American dad, a tall, rangy, white Protestant; her beautiful Muslim mother, who was born and raised in an affluent home in Karachi, the first capital of Pakistan; and her sweet maternal grandmother, who raised the kids and kept the house while the adult couple ran an architectural firm. This grandma has a set of slightly dissonant memories: “A very long time ago,” she tells young Sadia, “your ancestors left Israel in a ship . . . and they were shipwrecked, in India. They were Jews, but they settled in India. In the shipwreck they lost their Torahs, and they forgot their religion.” Sadia’s nana had spent her early adult years as a Muslim wife in a beautiful beach house in Bombay. But she was neither Hindu nor Muslim. Her prayers, years later, are Muslim, but in her childhood she was a Jew.

These tales told by Sadia’s grandmother change over the years and seem highly edited for the children. Yes, she was a member of a group called Bene Israel. As a young adult she worked as a nurse in a Bombay hospital, while being secretly married — or perhaps not — to a handsome Muslim. But then, in 1947, when partition came, she was forced to move with her wealthy husband to Karachi. She was in for a rude shock. “When Nana left Bombay for Karachi after the Partition of India,” the author tells us, “she left behind her birthplace and community for a new life; she became the third wife in a joint Muslim household, all three families under one roof.”

But to Sadia, the details of her nana’s Jewish youth remained tantalizingly obscure. What had really become of that legendarily small group of Jews who had set out from Israel 2,000 years earlier, who still evidently believed that they were one of the lost tribes of Israel, and who had settled so long before on the Konkan coast of Western India?

More here.

Mahmoud Darwish, 1941-2008

Gg In Ha’aretz:

Mahmoud Darwish, the world’s most recognized Palestinian poet, whose prose gave voice to the Palestinian experience of exile, occupation and infighting, died on Saturday in Houston, Texas. He was 67.

The predominant Palestinian poet, whose work has been translated into more than 20 languages and won numerous international awards, died following open heart surgery at a Houston hospital, said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Born to a large Muslim family in historical Palestine – now modern-day Israel – he emerged as a Palestinian cultural icon who eloquently described his people’s struggle for independence, and as a vocal critic of both Israel and the Palestinians. He gave voice to the Palestinian dreams of statehood, crafted their declaration of independence and helped forge a Palestinian national identity. He felt the pulse of Palestinians in beautiful poetry. He was a mirror of the Palestinian society, said Ali Qleibo, a Palestinian anthropologist and lecturer in cultural studies at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.

Darwish first gained prominence in the 1960s with the publication of his first poetry collection, Bird without Wings. It included a poem (“Identity Card) that defiantly spoke in the first person of an Arab man giving his identity number – a common practice among Palestinians when dealing with Israeli authorities and Arab governments – and vowing to return to his land.


Frailty in Sarajevo

028_p502 Salil Tripathi reviews Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project and Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, in the New Statesman:

Monuments describe a city, and Sarajevo has many: tall buildings pockmarked with shells, including the old office of Oslobo djenje, the city’s newspaper. There are bridges dividing the city, such as the one where a sniper shot down two young women, a Serb and a Bosnian, plunging the city into war, and the Latin Bridge, where Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand. You can see the ski slope where Radovan Karadzic held court, pointing out the sites that he wanted destroyed. And there is the bakery where 22 people who had queued up to buy bread were mown down one morning.

In his earlier fiction, the Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon has written movingly about the city’s siege, which lasted over four years and killed more than 10,000 people, even though he could see it only on television, as he was in America when the madness descended. Hemon wanted to hold on to Sarajevo’s integrity, to the seamless city where you would not notice as you moved from the Austro-Hungarian to the Muslim part of town. The city’s lives were in termingled, not compartmentalised, as Karad zic sought.

Describing that lively Sarajevo, Vladimir Brik, the protagonist of The Lazarus Project, says that in his city “everyone could be whatever they claimed they were – each life, however imaginary, could be validated by its rightful, sovereign owner, from the inside”.

On the Georgia-Russia War

Aleqm5hobkjd6zhazwwvobplkfvytfjpaa Over at The Duck of Minerva, Dan Nexon on this new war:

The Georgians, perhaps starting to recognize the degree of their miscalculation, are calling for a cease fire. Meanwhile, Bush and Putin have met in Beijing to discuss the conflict; and countries from all over the world (including Iran) are calling on both parties to cease fighting.

Georgia now wants to bring all of its forces back from Iraq and, as Fester predicted, has asked the US to help with the effort. The US has agreed to do so.

Ingo Mannteufel of Deutsche Welle does a good job of describing the intense propaganda war surrounding the conflict. For an example, the Armenian News Agency reports:

Gaining the maps of Georgian military, Russian peacekeepers got evidence that military operation in South Ossetia was not abrupt. The attack was planned scrupulously.

This afternoon, units of the 58th army freed Tskhinvali. Battles are going on along the responsibility zone of the Russian peacekeeping contingent, land forces commander Vladimir Boldyrev said.

Wounded are being evacuated. Special forces are sent to Tskhinvali. Landing and assault battalions of the 76 Pskov division entered the South Ossetian capital, Vesti reports.

Recall that Armenia is a Russian client state.

Doug Merrill reports that the situation in Tbilisi remains mostly normal; Wu Wei is trying to get out, and not succeeding.

A few points of analysis.

I don’t think there can be any doubt at this point that the Russians were well-prepared for a Georgian offensive. What remains obscure is whether their quick and overwhelming response demonstrates that the Kremlin was trying to provoke Georgia into providing them with a pretext to attack, or because they operated on the reasonable assumption that they needed to be ready in the event of a Georgian offensive against one of the breakaway regions.

A Conversation With Richard B. Freeman

Freeman discusses “globalization and its complex consequences for inequality in national and global contexts. He analyzes the implications of the feminization of the labor market, the effect of immigration on national job markets, the shift of policy innovation in the U.S. from the federal government to the states, and the benefits of international labor standards.”

Orientalism Inverted: The Rise of ‘Hindu Nation’

Neil Gray in Mute (via Political Theory Daily Review):

The grandiose assertions of the German romanticists struck a receptive chord in parts of the Indian intelligentsia. Herder’s romanticist nationalist philosophy of a nation beyond politics residing in the permanent ‘life force’ of the people and enunciating popular truth in the face of domination appeared ‘eminently meaningful’ to large parts of the Indian colonial middle-class. No mere ‘German Ideology’, the idea of nation as popular, cultural and latent, spread rapidly throughout India with cultural nationalism quickly developing as the inverted offspring of German orientalism. For Herder, the national soul was ‘… the mother of all cultures upon earth’, representing an inexpressible spirit in the world, which resided in its ‘purest form’ within the common national Volk. Herder’s romanticist discourse of cultural difference and authenticity provided a conceptual grammar for a domesticated cultural nationalism, and became a powerful impulse for an incipient national ideology based on received orientalist categories in India.

J.G. Fichte, further contributed to an essentialised and organicist conception of nation by arguing that cultures were constituted through the nature-given essence of nationality and could only survive and develop through deep emotional attachment to a state: ‘… that gave body to the nation.’ By virtue of this profound emotional attachment, a nation could become practically invincible according to Fichte – even in the face of inferiority in terms of material, military and productive power. Cultural nationalism would ultimately depend on ‘will’ and the ‘idea’ of nation. The will to sacrifice and loyalty could ‘elevate’ patriotic men above the petty concerns of politics and historical contingency to provide the very life-force of the nation – an idea all too amenable to Indians pinioned by the brute force of colonial domination. The cultural nationalism of Herder and Fichte, and their romanticist emphasis on discourses of ‘… fullness, spirituality, depth, sensitivity and authenticity’, helped ensure that later attempts to construct and consolidate a ‘Hindu community’ by leading Hindu nationalists would remain captive to the orientalist imagination.

The Virtues of Being Twisted

2008_07 Kathleen McGowan in Psychology Today:

A man trolls through web sites, searching for someone to fulfill his momentary fantasy. Waves of anticipation—he may find what he wants!—alternate with a nagging fear that he will be exposed as a sick freak. What would his friends and family think of him if they knew? A woman looks at her child, meanwhile, and feels crushed with disappointment. Her heart just doesn’t swell for him the way it does for his sister. She anxiously tries to hide her preference, all the while berating herself for being a terrible mother.

Feelings or habits that are out of the ordinary are great fodder for art and entertainment, but they can cause anguish to those who can’t understand—and don’t appreciate—their own outre tendencies. Of course some people are proud to be twisted, and even cultivate strangeness: Half-blue-eyed, all-pasty-white Goth rocker Marilyn Manson surely doesn’t spend much time moping around, wishing he were just like everybody else. But why do many others obsess over not being normal?

it’s johnson, always johnson


One of the more expensive items in Samuel Beckett’s working library was an 18th-century edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. He probably bought it in Dublin in the 1930s, when he made extensive notes on Johnson for a play that he was planning to write about the great man. The Johnson that Beckett was interested in wasn’t “Boswell’s wit and wisdom machine”, as he put it, but a sufferer from melancholia, idleness, guilt and fears of madness and annihilation. Beckett pictured his hero as an exhausted old man, “terrified of dying, terrified of deadness”, and copied out quotations from the medical diary in which Johnson charted his own decline. The play, Human Wishes, which included a role for Johnson’s cat Hodge (“sleeping – if possible”), was eventually abandoned, but the image of the dying writer stayed with Beckett. Years later, pressed for comment on his debts to Swift and Sterne, he told his first biographer that “it’s Johnson, always Johnson, who is with me”.

more from The Guardian here.

punk half panther


Most of Juan Felipe Herrera’s many books evoke at once the hardships that Mexican-Americans have undergone and the exhilarating space for self-reinvention that a New World art offers. The child of migrant workers and now a professor at the University of California, Riverside, Herrera began to publish and perform verse in the late 1960s and early ’70s, amid the Chicano cultural ferment of Los Angeles and San Diego; he has been, and should be, admired for his portrayals of Chicano life. Yet he is no mere recorder of social conditions. Herrera is, instead, a sometimes hermetic, wildly inventive, always unpredictable poet, whose work commands attention for its style alone.

If there is one earlier writer Herrera resembles, that writer is Allen Ginsberg, whose volatile temperament he shares. In a poem dedicated to Ginsberg (and to “Oloberto & Magritta”) Herrera calls himself a “Punk Half Panther”: his slangy enthusiasms make him at home among “Toyota gangsta’ / monsters, surf of new world colony definitions / & quasars & culture prostars going blam.” Like the young Ginsberg, Herrera is at once an idiosyncratic visionary and antiestablishment advocate; like Ginsberg, Herrera manifests glee in extremes, in paeans and in jeremiads.

more from the NY Times here.

Arthur c. clarke’s last theorem


The most exciting part of “The Last Theorem” (Del Rey: 304 pp., $27), the novel by the late Arthur C. Clarke and fellow science fiction veteran Frederik Pohl, has nothing to do with the titular titillation of finding a proof for Fermat’s famous marginal musing, nor with a secret weapon called Silent Thunder that instantly renders all of North Korea a demilitarized zone, nor with the umpteenth invocation of Clarke’s famous “space elevator” concept, which substitutes traditional rocket launchers with a giant ladder to the heavens. (For these, you need look no further than Clarke’s other 2008 collaboration, “Firstborn,” with Stephen Baxter.) Rather, “The Last Theorem” involves a part of the Clarke legend that has long been acknowledged but rarely discussed.

By the time of his death in March, the 90-year-old Clarke had presented readers with myriad visions of the future, at once awesome and sobering, in books like “Childhood’s End” and the germ and eventual novelization of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Mankind regularly gets a reality check upon contact with vastly superior races, finding itself instantly demoted from center-of-the-universe status to a mere means to an inscrutable end. In the grand scheme of things, the interior life of his characters is insignificant.

Not surprisingly, his private life was excluded from the universe of his books. Though it seems an open secret among many that he was homosexual, Clarke was coy regarding his sexual orientation. (Asked if he was gay, he would respond, “No, merely mildly cheerful.”) Any link between his books and this facet of his life remains obscured.

more from the LA Times here.

Voices of Victims

From The New York Times:

Book In 2005, while a law student at the University of Miami, Mahvish Rukhsana Khan decided to volunteer as an interpreter for Afghan detainees at Guantánamo Bay. The American daughter of Afghan immigrants (her parents are Johns Hopkins-educated physicians), Khan thought it unfair that the detainees could not understand their lawyers, who did not speak Pashto, and although she didn’t know whether they were guilty, she believed they were entitled to prove their innocence. But after more than three dozen visits to the Guantánamo prison camp, Khan writes, “I came to believe that many, perhaps even most” of the detainees were “innocent men who’d been swept up by mistake.” A number of the men she met insisted they had been sold to the United States by bounty hunters, after the American military dropped leaflets across Afghanistan promising up to $25,000, or nearly 100 times the annual per capita income, to anyone who would turn in members of the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

I began “My Guantánamo Diary” wondering whether Khan was too credulous, especially after she conceded that “it may appear to some readers that I gave ample, and perhaps naïve, credence to the prisoners’ points of view.” But by the end, I was more or less persuaded by her conclusion that most of the Afghans she met were not guilty of crimes against the United States, and for a simple reason: the military ultimately released most of them. Once you know the endings to Khan’s stories, they read like the gripping narratives of the wrongly accused. There is Ali Shah Mousovi, a pediatrician who says he returned to Afghanistan in 2003, following years of exile in Iran, to open a medical clinic and rebuild his country. Soon after his return, American soldiers broke down his door, accused him of associating with the Taliban and took him to the Bagram Air Base. There, he says, he was blindfolded, hooded, gagged and repeatedly kicked in the head by American soldiers, who spat on him, cursed him and paraded him naked.

More here.

First complete Neanderthal genome sequenced

From Nature:

Neanderthal_2 The first complete genome of a Neanderthal — specifically, the mitochondrial DNA found in a 38,000-year-old bone — has been sequenced. The highly accurate sequence contains clues that our relatives lived in small, isolated populations, and probably did not interbreed with their human neighbours. “This is the first ‘finished’ genome sequence of an extinct human relative,” says the study’s lead scientist, Ed Green, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Analysis of the DNA, taken from a bone fragment from the Vindija Cave in Croatia, puts the date of our last common ancestor at around 660,000 years ago, give or take 140,000 years. This is broadly in line with other estimates based on archaeology. The research, published in Cell, is a taster for the unveiling later this year of the complete Neanderthal nuclear genome sequence — which many hope will reveal the key genetic changes that propelled the evolution of human behaviour.

More here.

A Nightmare of Shattered Lives

Th1_247200857frere Artist Jane Frere in The Scotsman:

I was in Bethlehem working on The Nakbah Project, a programme of artistic workshops with Palestinians to create an art installation, Return of the Soul, marking the 60th anniversary of their expulsion from their homeland in 1948. Amal was one of three women I worked with in the ancient town – the others were called Imurad and Shama – who had agreed to make 200 figures. Normally these three ladies would eke out a living by creating the most exquisite Palestinian embroidery, or other craft folklore, to sell to the dwindling tourist trade. But now such tourists comprise only the most dedicated of pilgrims, bold enough to venture beyond the 8m-high towering wall, through hostile check points, to seek out the birthplace of Christ.

I knew that Imurad, Shama and Amal loved the concept behind the project. They were not only digging into their own family histories, but also those of their friends and relatives. But, really, they were desperate. Although they wouldn’t admit it, they needed the money.

So, with enthusiasm and dexterity, my Bethlehem trio swapped their needles and thread for pliers and wire. As we negotiated our way around the twists and knots, creating the skeletal wire shapes representing their fleeing grandparents, we huddled on sofas around a single bar electric fire, and out poured a litany of woes – unemployed husbands, hospital fees for the son who got shot in the leg, the struggle to support older members of their families, nearly all succumbing to an assortment of cancers. Palliative care is rarely available in hospitals there; if there is no imminent threat of death, everyone gets discharged as quickly as possible due to lack of space. But that might mean paying for medication and nutrients on drips administered at home, and if an electricity bill is not paid, the power is cut off with devastating consequences for the makeshift nurses. In my time in Palestine I gathered many stories like these, as I travelled across hostile borders observing the fragments of people’s shattered lives.

As an artist and theatre practitioner, my interests have always tended towards humanitarian concerns, and the journey an artist takes interests me almost more than the final work of art.

Prog-Rock Concept Albums, A Defense

Article_moody2 Rick Moody in The Believer:

Woe to the musician who can actually play his or her instrument. In that direction ridicule lies. Ridicule by reason of excessively long solos, of leaden grooves, of unpleasant facial posturing so as to simulate profundity.

In this regard: consider the plight of Gentle Giant. They are among the most reviled of prog-rock outfits from the ’70s. They made concept albums; they were heavily influenced (or so it was said) by the French Renaissance writer Rabelais; they were all capable of playing recorders; and, after the advent of punk, they tried to sell out and make New Wave albums. If all that were not bad enough, they started life as a soul band (Simon Dupree and the Big Sound), electing to go prog in 1969.

It would seem impossible to defend Gentle Giant, and yet that is what I mean to do. My defense rests on the following notions: 1) That 4/4 time is really boring and starts to hurt your head after a while. 2) That counterpoint, as a compositional tool, is beguiling and satisfying to the ears. 3) That a record with a lot of different instrumental textures is more consistently interesting than one on which every song has the very same instrumentation. 4) That dynamic variation is the secret to making a recording move over its course (if all of the songs start and end at the same level, there’s no reason to begin at the beginning of an album and go all the way to the end). 5) That love ditties, lyrically speaking, need not feature mere teen platitudes.

Free Hand, Gentle Giant’s album from 1975, is a fine example of these enumerated points, and a good place to start for those people who have not yet given up reading these lines.

Rising Political Violence in India and China

Paul Rogers in openDemocracy:

The exponential growth of the economies of China and India has won for these Asian giants a position of global economic and political prominence. But this process has been accompanied by profound internal discontent, some of which takes violent forms. The respective domestic experiences may be very different, but there are enough commonalities to suggest a lesson for the dominant economic model to which both states now adhere.

The east’s far west

The killing of sixteen police officers and the wounding of sixteen others in an operation in the western Chinese oasis city of Kashgar on 4 August 2008 was the most severe incident of anti-authority political violence in China for many months. The precise responsibility remains to be established, but it is likely to have been perpetrated by a separatist Islamist group which sees itself as acting on behalf of the majority Uighur population of Xinjiang region (where Kashgar is situated). The timing, in the very week of the opening of the Olympic games in Beijing on 8 August – and following an apparently coordinated attack on two buses in Kunming in the southwest province of Yunnan on 21 July which killed two people – further suggests a political motivation.

The nature and timing of these incidents have guaranteed widespread media attention in the ensuing days, both in China itself (where a year marked by the Tibet riots and the Sichuan earthquake has seen more open coverage in the official media, partly a result of its unofficial proliferation) and internationally. This is welcome insofar as greater discussion of such security issues can aid the search for understanding and solutions. At the same time, it is important not to extrapolate too far from the Kashgar attack, as it is a (still) relatively isolated example of paramilitary violence rather than in itself evidence of a long-term campaign.

John Cooley, 1927-2008

Abc_john_k_cooley_080808_main Veteran journalist and one of the more insightful observers of the Middle East, John Cooley, has passed away.  Mike Lee over at the ABC News blog World View:

John Cooley was my hero. You may not know it, but he was your hero too. John was a journalist’s journalist. But that says too little. He was a deeply intelligent, perceptive, committed and generous colleague who was unfailingly generous with his time, and with his considerable knowledge of world events.

As a radio correspondent, and an editorial sidekick to Peter Jennings, John was highly influential in helping to shape the foundations of ABC News when it was growing into itself as a world-class news organization in the early 1980s. You probably never knew John, unless you were a world leader, or intelligence operative, a secret source in an outlawed group,or an expert in the major issues of the day. I used to look at John and imagine that his skull was a massive Rolodex. That was before the first personal computers were widespread. I’m still not sure that John ever really needed something as slow as a microchip.

How can I describe him in the flesh? Do you remember those early James Bond films? John Cooley was Q, the inventor who furnished 007 with an endless supply of wondrous gadgets. If you squint your eyes, there is an element of that in JC’s relationship with PJ. But Peter was never dismissive of a Cooley cocktail of cold fact and insight. Both men were smart and committed, and complemented one another in a way that provided ABC with a behind-the-scenes rocket booster.

On Wood’s How Fiction Works

239763547 Giles Harvey in the Village Voice:

One would hope that the reading public is not so guileless nor the art of literature so glibly reducible as a recent publishing epidemic might suggest: How to Read a Book, How to Read a Novel, How to Read a Poem, How Novels Work, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Reading Like a Writer, How to Read & Why, How to Read Slowly, Why Read? What happened here? No one, to be sure, said reading was supposed to be easy, but do we really need—do we really deserve—all this florid overexplanation? Of course, the only truly indispensable advice about reading, about how to prepare oneself for it—spiritually, if you like—was given by Dr. Johnson to Boswell and is well known: Clear your mind of cant.

Cant, unfortunately, is what many of these books tend to promote (what reasonable person would want to read literature like a professor?). Given its fantastically banal title, the uninitiated reader may be forgiven for assuming that How Fiction Works, the latest book from the celebrated literary critic James Wood, is more of the same, destined for an obscure spot on the remainders shelf somewhere between How Novels Work and How to Read a Novel. Wood, however—who recently joined The New Yorker after 12 years at The New Republic—is no ordinary critic, and How Fiction Works proselytizes on behalf of literature not merely by recommending it, but by actually embodying the virtues it sets out to praise.

Literary criticism is perhaps an inherently pugnacious discipline, and it’s certainly a dialectical one. Nietzsche said that “Every talent must unfold itself in fighting,” and Wood is a case in point.

thomas frank through arthur bentley


Washington, as Frank sees it, plays host to a simple clash of interests: money and business on one side, the people on the other. “The Wrecking Crew” is written in a voice of high derision—much more so than the sincere, bewildered “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”—and it can be good, spirited fun. Frank captures a quality of exuberant bullying in those of his conservative subjects he knows well enough to identify individually, rather than categorically. He registers their self-justifying certainty that the other side is playing as rough as they are, and the soaring rhetoric about evil and freedom that they use to discuss even trivial matters.

“The Wrecking Crew” is what Arthur Bentley would call a discussion-group activity, meant to fire up the troops. It is reportorially and intellectually imprecise. How many lobbyists are there in Washington, exactly? By what yardstick did Frank conclude that we are undergoing “the greatest wave of political corruption in living memory”? What would be the sign that conservatives no longer rule, if Democrats’ controlling the political apparatus doesn’t count? Frank rarely mentions Democratic lobbyists or interest groups and glosses over the complexity in the coalitions that form the two parties: “corporations” and “conservatives” seem always to operate in perfect concert, on the Republican side. “Lobbying brings a constant pressure in a single direction,” he writes.

more from the New Yorker here.