by Michael Blim
For America’s liberals, these are soul-trying times. The romance with Barack Obama is over. They have discovered, as one pundit in the Washington Post put it, there he is an Eisenhower Republican. In fairness to Obama, he never promised to be anything else, as perceptive commentators before the election noted. Yet, as the stuff of liberal wish-fulfillment, Obama could not be resisted: a self-identified African-American, a Harvard lawyer trained by some of the best minds liberalism still possessed, and a product of Hyde Park Chicago liberal patronage with some church-related street organizing thrown in, Obama embodied the dream of a new multicultural liberalism that would overcome social tensions by the force of his example. And liberalism would become the majority creed once more.
The economic crisis of the last three years has put paid to the wish, and the Obama administration shows every indication of putting an end to American liberalism, the one hundred-year plus political movement that sought a state dedicated to human improvement, equal opportunity, and the regulation of capitalism.
American liberalism arose at the turn of the 20th Century when the middle class produced by our nation’s massive industrial great leap forward began to make money and to thirst for the power to remake American society in its own image. It strived to make an America that was educated, efficient, and fair. Convinced that social problems could be solved through scientific study and pragmatic policy-making that prescribed specific remedies, American liberalism sought to regulate business abuses, restore competition in markets, and to build, albeit incrementally, a welfare state. It sought the upper hand politically by eschewing social democracy, thus rejecting any real need for power sharing with labor and the working class. Ensnared by its own narcissistic self-regard, it imagined itself the guardian of the general interest; every other group or class was just a special interest.
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By Liam Heneghan
For Oisín Heneghan, an exemplary contemporary Oisín.
The River Dodder, a significant stretch of water that arises at Kippure in the valley of Glenasmole, Co. Wicklow, travels twenty-six kilometers through the Dublin suburbs before joining its more significant cousin, the River Liffey, at Ringsend. Together these rivers, along with other lesser streams and brooks, move Dublin’s detritus out to sea. On its way, the Dodder passes through Templeogue Village, where I grew up, a town which the suburban expansion of Dublin caught up to and washed over in the 1950’s as the city surged in the opposite direction towards Tallaght, and on towards Wicklow, leaving behind alluvial deposits in the form of barely distinguishable estates of semi-detached houses banked up against the cottages, churches, and the forgotten antiquities of much earlier times. Some mornings queuing for a bus into the city center the sweet smell of pig-shite would catch in the throat, emanating from the little piggery down near the river, down where the village seems a little older, more primordial.
A seemingly benign and even-tempered river, the Dodder recouped some of its old boisterousness on the 25th of August 1986, when Hurricane Charley (called Charlie in Dublin) dumped several inches of rain into the catchment. It was the night of my younger brother Padraic’s twenty-first birthday and our family, along with many others from the village, stood close to the bridge over the Dodder that connected us to the rest of South Dublin, watching the water rise close to the roof of the new bridge. The Dodder has never been kind to its bridges. Whole trees were swept along that night. And over the years the river has carried many an unwary traveler to their watery end during such unexpected swells.
Those turbulent waters that we viewed that night traveled the same course as did the waters where, legend has it, St Patrick Christianized one of the last great Irish pagans, Oisín the bard.
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Anonymous. Graffiti found in Karachi. 2011.
Thanks to my niece Batool Raza whose friend took this photograph.
by Tom Jacobs
I stick a patch on my shoulder and I think of Einstein’s brain. It’s in a vat, the brain, that is. A brain in a vat. The body is long gone, but the brain remains. A controlled-release of nicotine enters my bloodstream and I also think of Dean Moriarty, the father I never found. I think of Einstein’s brain and of old Dean Moriarty, each barreling down toward the vanishing point of I-80, one beside the other, pursuing the ever-receding sunset.
Einstein’s brain travelled across country in a jar. His brain sat shotgun (well, in the trunk, actually, but it’s nicer to think of his brain sitting shotgun). Then there is Kerouac/Sal Paradise with Cassady/Moriarty, careening down I-80, the interstate that slices right through the US all the way out to San Francisco. And then back again, culminating at the? ass end of I-80, at the George Washington Bridge, the view of which was once afforded to me out the bedroom window of one of my first apartments in the city. I would look at the bridge and imagine the road beyond, and the bald head of the sun sinking into the earth, and think of “all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it.” My mind travels Westward into the night like Einstein’s be-vatted brain, but my body remains rooted in my apartment on 181st street. And really, my mind, too, is trapped in the envelope of my body, such as it is, that stares out the window imagining all the people dreaming.
Dickhead that I am, I don’t know if this is important or silly.
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by Sue Hubbard
Can art regenerate a community? Can building an architect designed gallery in a socially deprived area change its fortunes? Everyone wants a Bilbao Guggenheim. Almost overnight Bilbao was transformed from a culturally moribund commercial centre in an unfashionable corner of Spain’s Basque region to a must-see destination. After its opening in 1997 hundreds of thousands of tourists began to pour into the city just to visit Frank Ghery’s new building. Then came the knock- on effects: the new hotels, the expanding of the airport, the upgrading of facilities and extra employment and, hey-presto, Bilbao was changed forever.
It was a far sighted decision by the local burghers even though there was, at the time, much opposition. But the result is one of the most extraordinary and beautiful modern buildings you will see anywhere. Tate St. Ives, above Porthmeor beach, has also been a success. But here the project was built on an historic legacy, for St. Ives has, due to its especial clarity of light, had a thriving artistic community since the 19th century. The tiny fishing village, a popular middle-class holiday destination, already attracted people who might be expected to visit a gallery.
But the opening of Turner Contemporary this week, in the rundown seaside resort of Margate, most famous in recent years as the childhood home of the artist Tracey Emin, has a bigger challenge on its hands.
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by Misha Lepetic
“The architect is primary… is the real cornerstone of any culture, of any society.”
Frank Lloyd Wright, 1958
What is the responsibility of the architect or designer within the contemporary context of urbanism? If we’re to begin with the preceding quote, taken from an interview with an astonishingly anti-urbanist Frank Lloyd Wright, it is an unconditional, Roarkian supremacy. If these sentiments had prevailed, of course, Le Corbusier would have ensured that today’s Paris would look very different.
Wright, his avatar Howard Roark, and Le Corbusier exemplify extreme, or perhaps extremely self-aware, instances of one of the great struggles in architecture: the uncomfortable fact that the world is full of people, and that architects are primarily educated in the total discourse of buildings. However, the increasing urbanization of the human race relegates the efficacy of architecting individual buildings as, at best, proofs-of-concept and as, at worst, vanity projects. And many such buildings placed in proximity to one another do not add up to a coherent urban solution.
This is not to say that architects and planners have not frequently thought on a comprehensive, urban scale. Christopher Wren’s plans for London following the Great Fire, mostly unrealized, and Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s revision of Paris, mostly enacted, show us otherwise. But these plans revolved did not concern themselves with the citizenry as such. In the case of Wren, the self-interest of the merchants and landowners in fact prevented the plan’s execution. And despite the net benefits, the social consequences of Haussmann’s plan for Parisian identity are still hotly contested: the destruction of over 20,000 houses and buildings was not just about making room for the wide boulevards, but also led to the displacement of untold thousands of the poor to the suburbs of Paris, while speculators grew wealthy from flipping the new apartments to the rapidly rising bourgeoisie (see Balzac’s The Rise and Fall of César Birotteau for a particularly wonderful account of pre-Haussmannian property speculation and bankruptcy).
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Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Mary Warnock’s Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics (Continuum, 2010) is an ambitious book. In it, Warnock distinguishes religion from morality, demonstrates the dependence of religious reasoning on moral reasoning, and argues that religious perspectives are nevertheless crucial for social and political life. We have a review of the book forthcoming in The Philosopher’s Magazine. For the most part, we are in agreement with Warnock. But we do have some disagreements, and we want to focus here on one aspect of Warnock’s view that strikes us as especially troublesome, namely, Warnock’s conception of the value of religion in a secular society.
Warnock’s case in favor of religion is broadly consequentialist. She holds that religious institutions and practices should be sustained because, on balance, they are socially beneficial. Warnock contends that – unlike morality and the rule of law – religion is not necessary for civil society; yet she insists that “there is no possible argument for holding religion is outdated, or that it can be wholly replaced in society by science or by any other imaginative exercise” (159). Surely this is overstated. No possible argument for the social dispensability of religion? Really? Actual arguments for this conclusion are easy to find. Consider Hegel’s argument at the end of the Phenomenology that religion must give way to art and philosophy in public life. Or John Dewey’s argument in A Common Faith that the social and experiential benefits of religious life can be detached from religion and subsumed under a more substantive conception of democratic community, leaving religion to wither away.
It is likely that Warnock means to claim that there is no good argument for the dispensability of religion; that is, Warnock means to deny that there could be an argument for the dispensability of religion which gives religion its due.
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by Quinn O'Neill
As an atheist, I sometimes get asked if I’m afraid of what'll happen when I die. Naturally, I'm not afraid of going to Hell or any other supernatural place and I'm not afraid of being dead, but admittedly, there is something that scares me. I'm afraid that I could someday exist in (or as) another body.
My position is not so much that we can exist in more than one body but that we don’t know that we can’t, or even how probable it would be. To be clear, I'm not suggesting any kind of dualism or that we might be reincarnated with our current attributes and personality traits. Consistent with a naturalistic view of the world, I accept that consciousness and perception of self are generated by the brain, so when the brain dies there's nothing left – no thoughts, no personality, and no spirit. The chance of an identical physical copy of my brain arising again is very small, so perhaps I needn't worry.
But it’s here that the worry creeps in. Is an identical physical copy of my brain what it would take for me to experience being alive again? In order to establish that subjective consciousness is restricted to a single body, we'd have to understand how it works and we really don't.
From a naturalistic perspective, the brain is what makes us who we are. Presumably, if we could create perfect physical copies of ourselves right down to the wiring of our brains and the neural connections that store our memories, we could effectively recreate ourselves. But there’s a problem, because even if I could perfectly replicate myself and make a thousand copies, I would perceive only one of these as “self”. In other words, whatever makes me uniquely me is not something that I could even in theory share with an identical physical copy. The only thing that could distinguish me from such copies is position. Only the location of my perspective would be unique.
This is a bit of a conundrum. To an objective observer encountering me and one of my copies, there’d be two identical copies of me, each thinking itself the original. From my point of view, however, there’d be a big difference between the copies – I’d be one of them and the other would be someone else.
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Tamler Sommers in The Philosopher's Magazine:
About a year ago I was asked to write an accessible magazine article about experimental philosophy. The piece, as I conceived it, would begin along these (somewhat histrionic) lines:
The controversial new movement called experimental philosophy – “X-phi” as it has come to be known – has generated both excitement and hostility in the philosophical community. Questions abound: Is experimental philosophy the wave of the future or just a passing fad? Can probing for the intuitions of the “folk” tell us anything about philosophical truth? Are philosophers qualified to conduct empirical studies, or should this be left to the psychologists?
And so forth. But I couldn’t do it. I could not get myself to write an essay about the general debate over experimental philosophy. At the time, I had no idea why it was so difficult, but I think I do now. Debates are interesting when there is more than one reasonable position to hold. A debate about whether a particular instance of hate speech should be protected by federal law might be interesting. A debate about the value of freedom of expression laws in general is not. On the question of the general value or viability of experimental philosophy, there is only one reasonable position. This makes it an exceptionally boring debate, and who wants to write about that?
That said, many smart people perceive the disagreement on this issue to be legitimate. Experimental philosophy has received a great deal of attention in scholarly journals and the popular media. Often the topic of these articles is precisely what I claim is a non-issue – the value of experimental philosophy as a movement. And here I am writing about this same topic yet again. But I am not going to provide another argument for an obvious position. Instead, I’m writing this as an obituary – an obituary for the so-called controversy about experimental philosophy, and an attempt to diagnose how it lived as long as it did.
Actually, I might be a little late to the game. The recent installment on experimental philosophy in the New York Times blog forum “Room for Debate” (August 19, 2010) was if not an obituary then a strong signal that the issue was on life support. The blog featured perspectives from six philosophers, both “for” and “against” the new movement. The only problem was that they all seemed to agree about the subject under discussion. The unanimous verdict was that experimental philosophy, as a matter of principle, could offer important insight on deep philosophical problems. Room for debate? There didn’t seem to be any.
Vincent Czyz in Boston Review:
Every Sunday morning I spend a few hours with the colossal edition of the New York Times and its tendency to sum up because I don’t want to see the week coming; I’d rather watch it going. One Sunday I came across an article in the metro section that I found somewhat alarming: a cluster of businesses and residences in New Rochelle, New York, is going to be demolished to make way for an IKEA superstore. The city is claiming the land under eminent domain—the government’s right to take private land for public use. Although IKEA is neither a dam nor a highway nor a park, New Rochelle is labeling the area one of “urban blight,” which does in fact allow the city to invoke eminent domain. More likely, however, the municipality is already daydreaming over various ways to spend the $2.5 million in annual sales-tax revenue the IKEA is expected to generate.
Not surprisingly, the business owners, employees, homeowners and tenants about to be dispossessed have no desire to see a store the size of an army base built over the remains of their houses and workplaces. Understandably, they neither consider the neighborhood “urban blight” nor are they particularly interested in seeing the homes of their neighbors decked out with Swedish, assemble-it-yourself furniture.
Without ever having seen New Rochelle, knowing nothing about its furniture needs or what its political leaders had based their decision on (other than tax revenue), I sided with the soon-to-be displaced. Primarily, of course, it was simple identification: I wouldn’t want my house plowed under to make room for a furniture franchise. Secondarily, however, I thought that in this particular situation the poetry lost wouldn’t be worth the prose gained. This may seem an odd way of framing the situation, but the erosion of the poetic is one of the ramifications of the franchise, whether it’s a furniture outlet or a fast food chain.
There’s no animosity, of course, between prose and poetry. Like space and time, they’re different aspects of the same continuum. The conflict arises among readers who prefer one, often at the expense of the other. And, as in this instance, the text isn’t always composed of words. With the IKEA all but inevitable, with the runaway success of franchises in general, it seemed to me one more sign that we live in an age that is increasingly poetry-averse.
$pread Magazine is closing. $pread:
a quarterly magazine by and for sex workers and those who support their rights. We are current and former strippers, escorts, pro-dommes, phone sex and fetish workers, and porn stars of all genders. The magazine has a focus on personal experiences and political insights, and contains practical information like news, features, health columns, and resources related to the sex industry. $pread builds community in the sex trade by featuring the honest and diverse perspectives of those who know it best: the women and men, including transgender persons, who work within this sensationalized, highly stereotyped industry.
Over at Ms. Magazine's blog, Monica Shores from $pread:
Most women have strong feelings about the sex industry, be they for or against. (And many, of course, remain undecided.) When dealing with such an emotionally volatile topic, it’s easy to inadvertently silence or even insult sex workers themselves. (As a participant in sex worker activism for the past four years, I’ve seen that in action and on the page.) There’s a way to debate commercial sex while respecting the industry’s laborers. Here are some suggestions:
1) Don’t diminish or mock sex workers’ agency. When discussing a person coerced or forced into sex work, a sensitive recognition of the violation they’ve suffered is definitely in order. However, it’s important to let individuals themselves make this distinction, rather than automatically assigning them a label that indicates lack of agency. For instance, referring to all sex workers as “prostituted” or “used” can be violating in and of itself if the person identifies their work as a free choice.
Similarly, language implying that sex workers are defiled or disgusting will quickly alienate them—for instance, calling porn an “institution that systematically uses the bodies of subordinate groups as sheer sexual objects at best, and open toilets at worst,” as this Ms. blog comment does. Even abused workers don’t want the public analogizing them to waste receptacles.
There’s a way to recognize the indignities wrought upon another human being without furthering those indignities.
Stefany Anne Golberg in The Smart Set:
The public nature of the river baptism is what sets it apart from so many other religious rituals (especially in America, a country of believers with, paradoxically, few shared rituals). A river baptism doesn’t have to be in a river; it can be in a creek, the sea, an old bathtub in the yard. One “Take Me to the Water” photograph shows a 1920 baptism being performed in a square, above-ground, wooden swimming pool that is part stage and stands in the middle of a barren Kansas prairie.
The river baptism doesn’t need a river but it does need an audience. Baptism itself doesn’t make you a believer, nor does it make you holy. It is a public testimony of faith, a covenantal act. The ritual of immersion baptism mirrors the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ by giving the initiate a spiritual death, burial/resurrection, and renewal. These three stages follow what anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep, in The Rites of Passage, classified as “separation,” “transition,” and “incorporation.” In the first stage, separation, the initiate is singled out from the community and led into the river. In the second stage, transition, the initiate is “buried” in the river along with her old life, and then “resurrected” as she is pulled from the watery grave. Finally, the initiate is brought officially into the community of worshippers, incorporated into her new life. Even though the baptism is performed individually, the ritual is one of communal bonding. With each baptism, the group of faithful also is reborn, refreshed.
The river baptism’s audience isn’t just made up of believers. Because they are meant to take place in ordinary, open settings, the rituals would often be joined by the curious, passersby, or, as we now know, a photographer. As the photos at ICP show, the witnesses to the baptisms are as much a part of the story as those being baptized.
Mark Singer in The New Yorker:
A deputy mayor of New York City once sagely observed, “I wouldn’t believe Donald Trump if his tongue were notarized.” A simple enough rule to live by, which raises the question of whether Trump “believes” his own non-stop prevarications. Leaving aside the tempting armchair theories about where Trump belongs on the spectrum of acute narcissistic personality disorder, I’m convinced that he’s convinced that everything he says and does is ultimately good for business. A large proportion of the tenants in Trump properties are foreigners who regard them as worthy flight-capital investments. A reassuring segment of the American electorate recognizes Trump’s execrable birtherism, aspersions upon President Obama’s academic credentials, and the slur that he needs to get “off his basketball court” for exactly what they are. Abroad, however, I doubt that a large audience is playing close enough attention.
Probably the funniest thing I ever heard Trump say was when, one day in his office, he handed me an unaudited financial statement (the provisional numbers added up to a net worth of a few billion) and declared, “I’ve never shown this to a reporter before.” If, at some point in the near future, Trump makes public an up-to-date “audited” financial statement, my guess is that a very large percentage will be assigned to the value of his name alone and a far less impressive amount to his tangible holdings. Until a couple of days ago, I was in accord with those who maintained that Trump would never formally announce his Presidential candidacy because he couldn’t walk away from whatever his fellow cynics at NBC Universal would pay him for another season of “Celebrity Apprentice.” Now I’m not so sure. Clearly, he needs the money—he always needs the money. One potential pitfall for Trump is that his compulsive ugliness is self-propagating. As Hertzberg and David Remnick observe, whatever laughter Trump evokes is rooted in dread and disgust, which the demeaning spectacle of President Obama releasing the long form of his birth certificate deepened into revulsion. Can he and will he get even uglier? Count on it. As of yet, there are no indications that the suits at NBC will muster the scruples to deprive him of his lucrative franchise. Unless, that is, Trump winds up doing a Full Frontal Charlie Sheen. Not an outcome we should necessarily hope for, but at the rate he’s going he just might.
From New Humanist:
If you’re anything like me, you’re not particularly interested in the royal wedding. Perhaps you have republican leanings, or you can’t bear the mawkishness of it all, or you disapprove of the terrible waste of money. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that this cloud has a silver lining – it has presented the nation with a golden opportunity to have some fun. Let’s face it, an opportunity to have a prank in the glare of the world’s media doesn’t come along very often. And the nation’s satirists and lampooners have been rising to the occasion with gusto. But no spoof piqued global interest quite as much as the Jewish Chronicle’s deadpan story which ran on the festival of Purim (where Jews get drunk to commemorate the execution of a malevolent Persian minister, four hundred years before Christ). Kate and Wills, the Chronicle reported, are planning to acknowledge “the multi-cultural nature of modern British society” in their nuptials. While the ceremony will be “completely Anglican in nature,” the happy couple will smear “mehendi” paste on each other in accordance with Muslim tradition, then, following Hindu custom, offer each other a “morsel of food”. Finally, the Chronicle quipped, the prince will “smash a glass with his foot” in a nod to the Jewish tradition.
The response to this nugget of foolishness was extraordinary. News outlets all around the world took it seriously, including Israel’s leading broadsheet, Ha’aretz (who, red-faced, have since removed the report from their website). Meanwhile, the Twitterverse took the ball and ran with it. Wiccans demanded a human sacrifice in Trafalgar Square; Jedis suggested that Charles lop off Wills’ hand with a light sabre; and Pastafarians – devotees of Dawkins’s Flying Spaghetti Monster – began lobbying for a “traditional” pasta-based feast.
From The Economist:
Asked to pen an endorsement for Paul Allen’s new autobiography, Bono, a well-known musician, declares that the co-founder of Microsoft’s “…intellect and generosity of spirit are there on every page”. He is only half right. “Idea Man” does provide plenty of insights into the ways in which Mr Allen has helped revolutionise everything from software to space travel. But its pages are also permeated by a bitterness towards Bill Gates, the man with whom he created a company that transformed the world of technology. Indeed, there are enough sour grapes in these pages to fill an entire vineyard.
The irony is that the primary focus of Mr Allen’s resentment—his co-founder’s intense competitiveness—is also one of the things that propelled Microsoft to greatness. That trait, and the tension that it provoked between the two men, is evident from the time they meet at school. Mr Allen describes how Mr Gates became apoplectic when a practical joke he played on Mr Allen backfired. In another vignette, he portrays his pal sweeping the pieces off a chessboard in fury when he lost yet another game to Mr Allen.
Mohsin Hamid in The Observer:
In December 1980, at the age of nine, I moved back to Pakistan for the first time.
We touched down at Lahore, in those less security-conscious days when it was still a place where families strolled to the tarmac to greet deplaning passengers. Ronald Reagan had just beaten Jimmy Carter in the election for president of the United States, the Soviet Union was about to mark the first anniversary of its invasion of Afghanistan, racoon-eyed General Zia-ul-Haq was ensconced in Islamabad as Pakistan's dictator, and I'd lost my Urdu.
It's a funny thing to lose your first language. I was an early talker, chirping along in full sentences and paragraphs well before I turned two, and I have a scar to prove it. In the summer of 1973, ZA Bhutto was campaigning to become prime minister of Pakistan, and I picked up the habit of climbing on to the dining table and holding forth in the manner of the speeches I'd heard him make on PTV: “When I become prime minister…”
One day someone tried to get hold of me and lower me to the ground. I made a run for it, dashed into thin air, fell, split open my head and wound up with blood in my eye and stitches across my brow. (ZA Bhutto's fate would, sadly, be similar.)