A Spring Awakening for Human Rights

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Jiri Pehe in the NYT:

At the official commemoration at Prague Castle, Vaclav Klaus, the president of the Czech Republic, gave a speech. The prime ministers of Slovakia and the Czech Republic opened an exhibition in Wenceslas Square — where Soviet troops had clashed with the citizens of Prague in 1968 — featuring a Soviet T-54 tank and homemade posters protesting the invasion. But most leading politicians limited themselves to brief statements.

Many leading thinkers here regarded the anniversary as unremarkable because they believe the Prague Spring was primarily a communist affair — an attempt by reformers to prevail over hard-liners within the party — and as such is of little interest to today’s authentic democrats. Articles in Czech news media argued that leaders of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1968, including First Secretary Alexander Dubcek, were naïve to think that they could sustain “socialism with a human face.” When they abolished censorship, tolerated artistic freedom, eased travel restrictions and allowed new civic movements to come into existence, they merely created a virus that threatened the communist system.

But as someone who experienced the Prague Spring at the impressionable age of 13, came of age during the repressive period of “normalization” and, from 1981 to 1989, observed my country from exile in the United States and Germany, I recall 1968 with fondness. And I suspect that our lasting reluctance to discuss the period openly is, more than anything else, a sign that the trauma of communism is still very much alive today, despite the last 19 years that democracy has had to take root.

still Cézanne

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For a certain generation of English artists, there have been enough Cézanne exhibitions to last more than one lifetime. These are the painters who had the gospel of Cézanne rammed down their gullets at art school, and who feel that the world has other things to offer. Roger Fry was the first great apostle of Cézanne in England, who at every opportunity lectured the unwary on the principles of ‘significant form’ and the consciousness-changing gifts of the master. Henry Tonks (who, as head of the Slade, resisted the siren call of modern art as forcefully as he could) caricatured him mercilessly in a 1922 painting called ‘The Unknown God’. Subtitled ‘Roger Fry Preaching the New Faith, Clive Bell Ringing the Bell’, it depicts the wild-eyed lecturer gesticulating madly while his accolyte chants ‘Cezannah, Cezannah’. Fry’s advocacy of Post-Impressionism went in and out of favour, but Cézanne’s theories became a mainstay of post-war art, and the central prop, for instance, of the Euston Road School. The influence was pervasive and it was against Cézanne’s distinctive palette of subtly modulated greens and blues that so many artists reaching maturity in the 1950s and 1960s rebelled.

more from The Spectator here.

john edwards: the musical

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(JOHN EDWARDS is in a Manhattan bar, talking to himself. Sad.)

JOHN EDWARDS

I’m running for president,
The highest office in the land.
Look, I’m right there in the mirror,
Smoothing my hair down with my hand.

I am handsome. Yes, it’s true.
And I am wealthy: that’s true, too.
But superficial things like that,
Well, they’re just not where I’m at.

You see, I care about the poor.
I often fret about their plight.
I adore the way I look
In this smoky barroom light.

(RIELLE HUNTER spots JOHN EDWARDS at the bar and approaches him.)

RIELLE HUNTER

Hi, I’m Lisa.
I mean Rielle.
Will you take me
To a hotel?

more from McSweeney’s here.

Jammu and Kashmir’s Holy War

Praveen Swami in Outlook India:

Screenhunter_15_aug_24_1816India’s strategy — if it can be described as one — in essence appears to be one of retreat. Ever since the Police opened fire on protestors seeking to march across the Line of Control (LoC) to Muzaffarabad, leading to street battles which led to the loss of at least twenty lives, the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) government has withdrawn from confrontation. Large parts of historic Srinagar are in the de-facto control of Islamist groups, with Police and CRPF personnel holding a handful of fortified pickets at major street corners.

Perhaps the most spectacular demonstration of just how far the state’s retreat has gone became evident on August 18, after the J&K government allowed Islamists to stage a massive pro-Pakistan protest in the heart of Srinagar — ignoring warnings from India’s intelligence services that the decision could lead to a meltdown of state authority. Led by the Tehreek-i-Hurriyat’s (TiH) Syed Ali Shah Geelani and the All Party Hurriyat Conference’s (APHC’s) Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, at the time of writing, tens of thousands of protestors assembled at Tourist Reception Centre in an unprecedented show of strength, even as Police were ordered off the streets to avoid confrontation.

Srinagar district Commissioner K. Afsandyar Khan and Senior Superintendent of Police S.A. Mujitaba were earlier despatched to stage negotiations on the management of the scheduled protests with Geelani — a de-facto acknowledgment that the Islamist leader has emerged as an alternate source of administrative authority. Their request for the protest to be scaled down was rejected by the Islamist leader. Governor N.N. Vohra and his advisors then ordered Director-General of Police Kuldeep Khoda to move his forces out of central Srinagar, to avoid clashes with protestors.

More here.

Cosmos: From Grade School to Itunes

From Carl Zimmer’s excellent blog, The Loom:

Screenhunter_14_aug_24_1805I just found that Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, the 1980 TV series on life and the universe, is now on Itunes. You can get it here, at $1.99 an episode.

I’ve downloaded the first two episodes, which I don’t think I’ve seen since they first aired 28 years ago. I remember watching every episode intently as a 14-year old at the end of the Carter administration. The passage of time has revealed some hokiness around the edges.  The music, much of it by Vangelis, sometimes makes me think I’ve walked into a crystal shop. Sagan is fitted in corduroy blazers and what seems to be the precursor of the Members Only jacket. Some of the images still look good–like Sagan’s calendar of the cosmos–but there are also painfully long pans across a cardboard diorama of ancient amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. We are so spoiled today by Jurassic Park.

More here.

Advanced Obamanomics

David Leonhardt in the New York Times Magazine:

Screenhunter_13_aug_24_1756As Barack Obama prepares to accept the Democratic nomination this week, it is clear that the economic policies of the next president are going to be hugely important. Ever since Wall Street bankers were called back from their vacations last summer to deal with the convulsions in the mortgage market, the economy has been lurching from one crisis to the next. The International Monetary Fund has described the situation as “the largest financial shock since the Great Depression.” The details are too technical for most of us to understand. (They’re too technical for many bankers to understand, which is part of the problem.) But the root cause is simple enough. In some fundamental ways, the American economy has stopped working.

The fact that the economy grows — that it produces more goods and services one year than it did in the previous one — no longer ensures that most families will benefit from its growth. For the first time on record, an economic expansion seems to have ended without family income having risen substantially. Most families are still making less, after accounting for inflation, than they were in 2000. For these workers, roughly the bottom 60 percent of the income ladder, economic growth has become a theoretical concept rather than the wellspring of better medical care, a new car, a nicer house — a better life than their parents had.

More here.

Sunday Poem

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Bearhug
Michael Ondaatje

Griffin calls to come and kiss him goodnightPerson_poet_michael_ondaatje
I yell ok.  Finish something I’m doing,
then something else, walk slowly round
the corner to my son’s room.
He is standing arms outstretched
waiting for a bearhug.  Grinning.

Why do I give my emotion an animal’s name,
give it that dark squeeze of death?
This is the hug which collects
all his small bones and his warm neck against me.
The thin tough body under the pajamas
locks me like a magnet of blood.

How long was he standing there
like that, before I came?

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Do Social Networks Bring the End of Privacy?

From Scientific American:

Social He has a name, but most people just know him as “the Star Wars Kid.” In fact, he is known around the world by tens of millions of people. Unfortunately, his notoriety is for one of the most embarrassing moments in his life. In 2002, as a 15-year-old, the Star Wars Kid videotaped himself waving around a golf-ball retriever while pretending it was a lightsaber. Without the help of the expert choreographers working on the Star Wars movies, he stumbled around awkwardly in the video. The video was found by some of the boy’s tormentors, who uploaded it to an Internet video site. It became an instant hit with a multitude of fans. All across the blogosphere, people started mocking the boy, making fun of him for being pudgy, awkward and nerdy.

Several remixed videos of the Star Wars Kid started popping up, adorned with special effects. People edited the video to make the golf- ball retriever glow like a lightsaber. They added Star Wars music to the video. Others mashed it up with other movies. Dozens of embellished versions were created. The Star Wars Kid appeared in a video game and on the television shows Family Guy and South Park. It is one thing to be teased by classmates in school, but imagine being ridiculed by masses the world over. The teenager dropped out of school and had to seek counseling. What happened to the Star Wars Kid can happen to anyone, and it can happen in an instant. Today collecting personal information has become second nature. More and more people have cell phone cameras, digital audio recorders, Web cameras and other recording technologies that readily capture details about their lives.

For the first time in history nearly anybody can disseminate information around the world. People do not need to be famous enough to be interviewed by the mainstream media. With the Internet, anybody can reach a global audience.

More here.

‘I am very fond of me, as I have told you’

From The Guardian:

Everdirk_2 What an egregious conundrum Dirk Bogarde was. If anything, the present chunky volume of letters, which appears to be the final instalment of the massive memorial to him masterminded by John Coldstream, former books editor at the Daily Telegraph and author of the standard biography, only deepens the mystery. Probably the most successful British film actor since the war, Bogarde consciously withdrew himself from the arena at the height of his career, when he had starred not only in many brilliant commercial successes, British and international, but also in a sequence of superb films written by Harold Pinter and directed by Joseph Losey, and one of the few films – Victim, about a homosexual blackmailing – which had a manifest effect on British social attitudes. At this zenith, he left the country and took up residence in a land he hardly knew and whose language he didn’t speak, declaring himself disgusted with the film industry, Britain and indeed the world at large, which, he believed, was going to socialist hell in a handcart. He then emerged from this self-imposed rustication from time to time to appear in a number of remarkable films for foreign directors, including the art-house experimentalists Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Alain Resnais, creating a series of bold and subversive performances, while constantly giving interviews in which he trashed the art of acting as trivial, requiring no great skill or effort and, as he put it, “no job for a man”.

More here.

A Journey of Dmitry Shostakovich

Dmitryshostakovich_72x103 Over at Snagfilms, you can watch the entire documentary.

Dmitry Shostakovich, the greatest composer of the 20th century, remains one of its biggest mysteries. The nine chapters of the film are framed by nine days of the last round-trip journey of the composer’s life: a trip on a Soviet ocean liner to the United States. The film is narrated primarily in words of Shostakovich’s letters and diaries, which sharply contrast with the propaganda movies shown on board the ship, as the twentieth century itself weaves myth and reality. Never-before-seen archival fragments of the composer’s life – newsreel footage, photographs, letters, and personal memoirs – provide a unique perspective on issues of the artist versus the state, and truth versus survival. In contrasting official truth with personal truth, the film offers insight into the mystery of how Shostakovich was able to penetrate, through his music, the ironclad curtain and deeply affect Western audiences. Shostakovich’s music, full of dark sarcasm and glory, lyricism and sorrow, laughter and melancholy, plays the leading part throughout the film.

A Conservative Assessment of John Rawls

David Gordon in The American Conservative:

Rawls never abandoned the principal tenets of his theory of justice, but in his 1993 work Political Liberalism, he changed course in one respect. He began emphasizing that in modern constitutional democracies like the United States, disagreements over fundamental values and issues such as abortion can threaten the stability of society. Given the degrees of disharmony, what are we to do?

His answer recalls the original position of TJ. Individuals should, once more, put aside their own conceptions of the good. But this time, in deliberating on these divisive issues, people must rely only on “public reason.” This consists of principles that everyone, regardless of his conception of the good, will have cause to accept. By an odd coincidence, if public reason is used properly, we will arrive at exactly the same principles as those set forward in TJ. It is difficult not to wonder whether Rawls’s enterprise is merely an attempt to find arguments in support of the political opinions of professors of his social class.

An example will show how public reason works. If your religion forbids abortion, you cannot appeal to this fact in political discussions, since religious views do not form part of public reason. Later, Rawls modified this rigid view. His final position was that you could mention your private views as long as you also had an argument from public reason to support your stand. Rawls’s introduction to the 2005 paperback edition of Political Liberalism states, “Certainly Catholics may, in line with public reason, continue to argue against the right of abortion. That the Church’s nonpublic reason requires its members to follow its doctrine is perfectly consistent with their following public reason.”

Even with that concession, Rawls’s idea of public reason has little to recommend it. Rawls has simply defined a notion of social stability to suit his theory. He never shows that something bad will happen if a society is not “stable” in his sense. Why cannot a society like our own, with considerable religious and philosophical disagreement, continue to flourish without the crutch of public reason?

in the fiery mist

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“Dare you see a Soul at the ‘White Heat’?” was the unnerving question put by Emily Dickinson in one of the poems she sent to a new correspondent, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in the summer of 1862. The answer, fascinatingly explored in a book that pairs the reclusive Belle of Amherst with the man who assisted in the first posthumous publication of her work, is that Colonel Higginson both dared and feared. Meeting Dickinson for the first time in 1870, after eight years of correspondence, the colonel told his invalid wife he had never encountered anyone “who drained my nerve power so much.” Riding home to Newport, a town he loathed, Higginson was nevertheless ready to express gratitude that the newly fashionable resort stood no nearer to Amherst. “I am glad not to live near her,” he confessed.

more from the NY Times here.

leviathan

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Whales have supplied a bewildering array of human needs. As recently as the 1960s, whale oil went into ice cream, soap, brake fluid, linoleum and margarine; whale livers were turned into vitamin A; whale ink was used to dye typewriter ribbons; tennis rackets were strung with whales’ insides and cat food was made from whale meat. In earlier times, during the 19th century, whales provided us with whalebone corsets for pushing ladies’ bosoms into unnatural forms, with lamp oil to light houses, with the pungent perfume of ambergris for anointing monarchs or seducing lovers, and with whale ivory – the teeth – for piano keys. Now, since the international moratorium on whaling of 1986, most of this giant whale economy has collapsed. Soya beans, plastics and various mineral oils have easily taken their place. But we still exploit whales for at least one thing: myth-making.

Ever since Jonah found himself stuck in the belly of one for three days and three nights, whales have been an epic spur to the human imagination.

more from the Sunday Times here.

A homage to a giant and a reproach to the midgets who decry him

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Le Corbusier Le Grand is doubly well named. First, the book is the size of two breeze blocks and notably heavier. It is, according to Jean-Louis Cohen, not a coffee-table book but the coffee table itself: all you need do is fit legs to it. Ho ho. But he has a point. It is the least wieldy book I have ever been propelled across a room by – it is 0.67m wide when opened, and demands a physical as much as an aesthetic will if it is to be appreciated. This is peculiarly apt, for Le Corbusier’s buildings themselves require the attention of every sense you can think of and then some: they need to be swooned through. They are not comprehensible by intellect alone.

Second, this was a great artist, among the greatest of his century.

more from the New Statesman here.

War and Peace

From The New York Times:

A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Startegy for America in the Middle East By Kenneth M. Pollack

Book_3 Pollack has long since confessed to having been wrong about Iraq. “A Path Out of the Desert” includes other mea culpas. “There has been far too little asking the people of the region themselves what they thought and what they wanted,” he ruminates at one point, though the book offers slim evidence of his having pursued this advice. While the administration that Pollack served gets some light wrist-­slapping, it is the following eight years of Bush policy that he calls “breathtakingly arrogant, ignorant and reckless.” Many of Pollack’s other judgments are as sound as is this criticism of the Bush administration. Since most of the post-cold-war world has stabilized, democratized and prospered, it is probably correct to suggest, as he does, that America should commit itself to helping the messy Middle East come up to par.

His proposal of a Grand Strategy to achieve this, which is to say a generation-long effort of a scale and intensity similar to America’s engagement with Europe after World War II, is challenging but not irrational, given the world’s growing dependency on Middle Eastern oil. And Pollack is right to say that violence and tyranny are not hard-wired into Islam, and to conclude that the threat of Islamist terror has been overblown. He is also right that internal unrest in Middle Eastern states is quite likely to be a strategic threat, and that this danger will not pass until they manage to produce better schools, more opportunities for youth, wider social justice and more inclusive, accountable government. He is correct, too, in describing the region’s current regimes as singularly awful, and even in admitting that George Bush showed unwonted acuity when he called for draining the swamps of extremism by promoting reform.

More here.