The democratic wish

John Keane’s new history shows that democracy is not a uniquely western invention. But this important revision, John Gray argues, does not add up to an argument for its necessity.

John Gray in The National:

Writing in 1908, the German thinker Max Weber, one of the founding theorists of contemporary social science, observed: “Such concepts as ‘the will of the people’, ‘the true will of the people’, have long since ceased to exist for me. They are fictions. All ideas aiming at abolishing the dominance of humans by others are utopian.” Weber was a liberal, who never doubted that democracy is better than tyranny. But he was also a realist. Democracy can make governments more responsible, he believed, and ensure they can be changed in a peaceful manner. It cannot abolish the need for rulers.

In this monumental work, the product of over a decade’s research and nearly a thousand pages long, John Keane aims to overturn this realist view. Citing Weber’s observation only to reject it, he declares “Democracies, understood as forms of government in which no body rules, dispense with the fetish of rulers.” A large part of this learned and pugnacious book is an exercise in re-writing the history of democracy, showing that democratic government is in no way a specifically western achievement. Ranging over three millennia and allotting only a small portion of his attention to ancient Greek and modern Anglo-Saxon experience, Keane demonstrates that democracy has been practised in many cultures. Assembly-based forms of government existed in Mesopotamia around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, 2000 years before something similar developed in Greece. One of the first movements towards representative democracy appeared on the Iberian Peninsula in the 12th century – “a gift of Islam to the modern world”, as Keane puts it. It was in post-independence India that a third type of “monitory” democracy, in which representative government was supplemented by civil institutions and forms of local devolution, began to develop.

Far from democracy being a one-track development from the Greek polis to Westminster and Capitol Hill, its growth has been shaped by many cultures and traditions.

More here.

Nine Lives

From The Telegraph:

Ninelivesstory_1505038f As several commentators have observed, the rapid economic growth of modern India is hugely impressive but has so far had little effect on a large percentage of the country’s population that live in still impoverished rural areas. Karl Marx’s complaint that religion was the opium of the people also recognised that those who have nothing in the material world inevitably seek solace and meaning in a spiritual one, a circumstance that certainly applies to the millions whom India’s economic boom has bypassed. Each of the nine lives William Dalrymple describes in his absorbing book is “intended to act as a keyhole into the way that each specific religious vocation has been caught or transformed in the vortex of India’s metamorphosis during this rapid period of transition, while revealing the extraordinary persistence of faith and ritual in a fast-changing landscape”.

The popular Western notion of Indian spirituality is bound up with asceticism and meditation, but religious experience in the subcontinent takes many forms, and for every self-denying sannyasi there are numerous devotees who find a path to god through singing, dancing, whirling, sex, drugs and storytelling.

More here.

An American’s journey to Mecca

800px-Masjid_al-Haram_panoramaFarooq Ahmed in the FT:

Muslims are required to travel to Mecca in the kingdom of Saudi ­Arabia to perform hajj at least once, if they reasonably can. The pilgrimage, which begins next month, is the single largest gathering on the planet.

On the spectrum of piety, I fall decidedly left of centre. And although I would never win a “World’s Best Muslim” award – for what he did as a law student on behalf of Guantánamo inmates, my brother is a far better candidate – I joined him, our more devout parents and a beloved uncle to undertake what I had been assured would be a life-changing trip.

I grew up not far from the geographic centre of the continental US, and performing the pilgrimage seemed untenable then. Living in New York as an adult, it seemed unwarranted, perhaps unnecessary. Still, the descriptions I read of hajj from sources as varied as Ibn Batuta, the Arabian explorer who journeyed from western Africa to China in the 14th century, and Malcolm X, primed me for the experience. When the opportunity came, I took it.

Our hajj group consisted primarily of middle-aged, upper-middle-class South Asian Americans like ourselves: that is to say, Indian and Pakistani doctors and engineers. Most had spent hefty sums of money securing “super deluxe” reservations guaranteeing well-appointed hotels and tents, comfortable travel and sanitised meals, thus ensuring minimal interaction with the supplicating masses – a Disneyland version of a pilgrimage. It sounded like the kind of spiritual journey that I could handle.

Was the American Consumption Binge Driven by Healthcare?

Left Business Observer makes the case that it was:

Cons-shr-GDP

Little of this vast medical spending is done directly by individuals. To understand how this all works requires a brief detour into national income accounting.

Only about 40% of household spending on health care comes from paying the doctor directly out-of-pocket; most of the rest comes from paying insurance premiums (including Medicare). But it’s not just the premiums that individuals pay directly; the national income accountants also attribute the employer share of health insurance premiums to households. The logic of this is that fringe benefits are a substitute for wages and salaries, which take the form of medical care (or pension contributions). That may seem a little strange—it’s not income you can spend on rent or a prosciutto, arugula, and brie sandwich, but it is a form of compensation.

While the morality tale of American overconsumption isn’t supported by a close look at the data, that doesn’t mean that the rise in reported consumption and the collapse in reported savings (at least until very recently) is meaningless.

The few Wall Street analysts who’ve taken note of the medical contribution to the consumption spike have perversely been arguing that since there was almost no consumption bubble when you exclude medical care, the retrenchment in spending could be less severe and protracted than many expect. But that’s certainly not the story that the recent retail sales figures are telling: they collapsed in late 2008 and early 2009, and have continued to erode since. With labor income very weak and credit very tight, and with neither likely to stage a vigorous recovery anytime soon, the decision to retrench might not be freely made.

Scientists study possible health benefits of LSD and ecstacy

Denis Campbell in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_08 Oct. 24 18.05 A growing number of people are taking LSD and other psychedelic drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy to help them cope with a variety of conditions including anorexia nervosa, cluster headaches and chronic anxiety attacks.

The emergence of a community that passes the drugs between users on the basis of friendship, support and need – with money rarely involved – comes amid a resurgence of research into the possible therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. This is leading to a growing optimism among those using the drugs that soon they may be able to obtain medicines based on psychedelics from their doctor, rather than risk jail for taking illicit drugs.

Among those in Britain already using the drugs and hoping for a change in the way they are viewed is Anna Jones (not her real name), a 35-year-old university lecturer, who takes LSD once or twice a year. She fears that without an occasional dose she will go back to the drinking problem she left behind 14 years ago with the help of the banned drug.

More here.

for kaprow

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It was the Summer of 1966 and someone was barking through a megaphone: “Keep moving, not too fast, don’t look at the cameras!” We were told to move deeper into the sandy pit, slowly, towards a group of people wearing black plastic capes at the bottom of the slope. We wore pink buttons that read: “GAS–I’M A HAPPENER” and blew whistles as we marched downwards past stacks of multi-colored oil drums that were pushed from a ledge. We were told to roll the drums back up the slope through a sea of fire-fighting foam. I guess I was too young to pick up the sexual allusions at the time, but the bubbly foam was warm and felt oddly stimulating as it oozed around my ankles. Mud stuck to the oil drums and made them difficult to roll up the embankment, but we kept pushing because there were men with cameras and we were going to be on TV.

more from Alastair Gordon at the WSJ here.

the knut

175px-Knut_Hamsun

In the spring of 1891, 31-year-old Knut Hamsun, penniless and hounded by debtors, embarked on a lecture tour of his native Norway. He had recently published his first successful novel, “Hunger”; now, he hoped to bolster his reputation with a public assault on the old guard of Norwegian writers, including playwright Henrik Ibsen. Hamsun padded lecture halls with friendly artists and publishers, and in Oslo, at the majestic Hals Brothers auditorium, he gave Ibsen a front row seat. “We have grown so used to believing what the Germans say about Ibsen that we read him assuming we will find words of wisdom,” Hamsun said in Oslo, looking directly at his chosen target. In fact, Hamsun continued, Ibsen had never offered any insight into the modern condition; he was a writer of the most shallow social drama, hobbled by an “indefensibly coarse and artificial psychology.” The playwright sat impassively through the tirade. But as Ingar Sletten Kolloen writes in his incisive new biography, “Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and Dissenter,” he may have been threatened by the young upstart, and for good reason.

more from Matthew Shaer at the LA Times here.

decrimiligaturitized

Schillinger-190

In the 1920s, a disaffected Soviet encyclopedia editor named Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky — a man haunted by Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” and by Communist realities — began writing a series of philosophical, allegorical, fantastical short stories. Seven of them appear in “Memories of the Future,” a selection of his fiction that takes its title from the book’s longest entry — the tale of a brusque monomaniac who builds a “timecutter” to eject himself from 1920s Moscow. None of these ­stories were published in Krzhizhanovsky’s lifetime. This was not because the work had been rejected or because it was, well, a little weird. Krzhizhanovsky, it seems, was too proud, too shy or (more likely) too frightened to show them around — given that he was spinning his dystopic fictions at about the same time that Stalin was collectivizing the Soviet countryside. Still, Krzhizhanovsky read his stories to friends at literary gatherings where they were, apparently, well received. And after his death, in 1950, at the age of 63, his wife deposited his manuscripts at the State Archives in Moscow, except for one novella, “Red Snow,” an anti-Soviet parable she concealed among her personal effects. In 1976, the scholar Vadim Perelmuter discovered the Krzhizhanovsky archival stash and went on to spend decades compiling and publishing the writer’s work. Now the translators Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov introduce Krzhizhanovsky’s neologistic whimsy, feverish invention and existential angst to a wider audience.

more from Liesl Schillinger at the NYT here.

Saturday Poem

Burren Falcon

Roused, she unpleats her feathers in the wind,
shakes her head, takes a quick shit, unloading
before flight. The sky pours hunting inks of colour:
pupils enlarge, fill the eye’s pool. Mountain,
dolmen, ferns, hem the low outcrops where
ascent begins again. She escapes the falconer’s arm,
outward though not half far enough,
her senses mewl for mice, chicks, newborn lambs
with sweet eyes and succulent hearts. Erect
with desire, her feathers flatten, she is scattershot
in the sky’s skin, blood-charged as she lunges
where limestone encloses the mountain’s
lungs. She tears on to a little death, beak
like a hooked needle, finally threading flesh.

by Mary O'Donnell

from The Ark Builders
Publisher: Arc Publications, Todmorden, 2009

Song of India

From The New York Times:

Amit Amit Chaudhuri’s new novel, a comedy of manners set in 1980s India, centers on the teenage scion of a corporate family who neither dresses nor acts the part. Instead, Nirmalya Sengupta, in his uniform of faded kurta and jeans, a copy of Will Durant’s “Story of Philosophy” as totem, takes the bus home from school while his father’s Mercedes follows at a discreet distance.

A devotee of Indian classical music, the boy is intent on defending this tradition against the threat of commercialism. As it happens, ragas run in the blood of both the protagonist of “The Immortals” and its author. Chaudhuri is not only a devotee of Hindustani music, but also a professional musician with several releases to his credit. (He sings his own compositions on a recent experimental album cheekily titled “This Is Not Fusion.”) Like his main character, Chaudhuri was tutored by a songstress mother and a beloved Rajasthani guru. And the biographical symmetries don’t stop with the music. Chaudhuri lends Nirmalya his own health condition (a heart murmur), his own cosmopolitan identity (as a Bengali raised in Bombay — now Mumbai — and schooled in London) and the addresses of his own youth (the Senguptas retire from a luxury high-rise in downtown Bombay to Bandra, which at the time was on the frontier of the feverishly growing city, a suburb of churches and gulmohar trees where the Chaudhuris also lived).

But none of these parallels protect Nirmalya from the wry, knowing authorial tone that makes the book so pleasurable, despite the sparseness of its plot.

More here.

Ian Siegal – Mortal Coil Shuffle

Last night I had the unexpected pleasure of seeing one of the world’s best blues guitarists play with his band in the tiny and sleepy mountain hamlet of Steinegg here in the South Tyrol. The story I am told is this: about fifteen years ago, a carpenter in that village, who also happened to be a die-hard rock fan, decided that what his fellow-villagers needed was a world-class music festival. Somehow, he has made it happen and, for nine days every year, Steinegg is home to all kinds of excellent jazz and rock.

[Thanks to Georg Hofer for taking me, and more info on Ian Siegal here.]

Atheist ads to adorn New York subway stations

Evan Buxbaum at CNN:

Art_nyc_atheist_subway_ad On October 26, a dozen bustling New York City subway stations will be adorned with the ads as “part of a coordinated multi-organizational advertising campaign designed to raise awareness about people who don't believe in a god”, according to a statement from the group, the Big Apple Coalition of Reason.

New York City's subway system is one of the busiest in the world with more than 5 million riders per day and more than 1.6 billion total passengers in 2008, according to the Metro Transit Authority.

Recognizing this, the Big Apple Coalition of Reason decided the “best bang for the buck” was to place posters in popular subway stations to capitalize on the amount of potential viewers, says Michael De Dora Jr., executive director of the New York Center for Inquiry, one of the associated atheist groups.

De Dora says the ambitions behind the advertisements are threefold.

More here.

DNA Origami is Remaking Nanotechnology

DNA-origami_320x198 Veronique Greenwood in Seed:

A smiley face glowed on the March 16, 2006, cover of Nature. “DNA Origami,” read the headline. “Nanoscale Shapes the Easy Way.” Inside, a relatively brief, single-author paper outlined a method for designing shapes made from DNA that would fold up on their own. The smiling prototype and the playful cover line may have been cute. But the changes the paper brought to a number of far-flung fields were nothing short of profound: Tiny, self-assembling structures, with applications in everything from biology to chip design, were now within our grasp.

Three years later, the research sparked by this breakthrough has just begun to bear fruit, as evidenced by a flurry of papers this summer. Caltech’s Paul Rothemund, the author of the Nature paper, and his collaborators at IBM published a way to fasten DNA origami to microchip materials. William Shih at Harvard led a team that developed three-dimensional shapes and curving structures, among many refinements to the technique. And Jørgen Kjems of Denmark’s Aarhus University published a method to build miniature boxes, equipped with multiple locks and molecules that glow red and green. As it turned out, everyone from cell biologists to drug delivery experts to materials scientists had been looking for just such a way to build.

Two Decades After the Fall: A Symposium on 1989

Twodecadesafter-homepage In Dissent:

NINETEEN-EIGHTY-NINE WAS a year of historic revolution and possibility. Popular and often nonviolent uprisings overturned communist rule in much of Eastern and Central Europe; and pro-democracy movements began to challenge its legitimacy in the Soviet Union and China. “Nothing in our past thinking, or in anyone else’s, prepared us for the remarkable turn of events,” wrote Irving Howe in 1990. “So much the worse for theory, so much the better for life!”

But has life changed dramatically for the better? While many economies have begun to liberalize, political illiberalism still lurks. And while many on the left hoped that social democracy might replace communism, many post-Soviet nations have adopted the policies of neoliberalism and the language of nationalism. “Any great social change unleashes great expectations,” Adam Michnik observed in 1999. “And therefore, of course, it leads to great disappointments.”

Shlomo Avineri, Paul Berman, Keith Gessen, Norman Geras, Charles S. Maier, Anna Seleny, Vladimir Tismaneanu, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, and Guobin Yang contemplate the political transformation of Eastern Europe, Russia, and China in the two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Science Education Needs a Helping Hand

U374427_sm Daniel Holz over at Cosmic Variance on this year's Social Media Challenge:

We are now in the middle of the Social Media Challenge at DonorsChoose. Many of our generous, loyal, beautiful, intelligent, witty, and particularly well-groomed readers have risen to the challenge, and we have to date raised $3,000, reaching over 2,000 students in need across the country. Thank you to everyone that has already contributed! For those whose wallets have remained closed, please consider donating. For example, Mrs. S is teaching Kindergarten in a high-poverty area in Oklahoma, and she needs some science kits to help inspire her budding scientists. To boot, the George Kaiser Family Foundation will match your donation dollar for dollar, so you get that heart-warming “I’m making a difference!” feeling for half the price. Although I’m sure you don’t need any further incentive, in recognition that it’s a material world Sean has kindly offered up a copy of his forthcoming book as a token of thanks for those donating over $100 (of which there are at least eight thus far) .