Sunday Poem

My Daughter's Body

If you saw her, you would think she was beautiful.
Strangers stop me on the street to say it.

If they talk to her they see that this beauty
Means nothing. Their sight shifts to pigeons

On the sidewalk. Their eye contact becomes
As poor as hers. They slip away slowly,

With varying degrees of grace. I never know
How much to say to explain the heartbreak.

Sometimes, I tell them. More often,
I remain silent. As her smile sears me, I hold

Her hand all the way home from the swings.
The florist hands her a dying rose and she holds it

Gently without ripping the petals like she does
To the tulips that stare at us with their insipid faces,

Pretending that they can hold my sorrow
In their outstretched cups because I knew them

Before I knew grief. They do not understand that
They are ruined for me now. I planted five hundred

Bulbs as she grew inside of me, her brain already
Formed by strands of our damaged DNA

Or something else the doctors don’t understand.
After her bath, she curls up on me for lullabies—

The only time during the day that her small body is still.
As I sing, I breathe in her shampooed hair and think

Of the skeletons in the Musée de Préhistoire
In Les Eyzies. The bones of the mother and baby

Lie in a glass case in the same position we are
In now. They were buried in that unusual pose,

Child curled up in the crook of the mother’s arm.
The archaeologists are puzzled by the position.

It doesn’t surprise me at all. It would be so easy
To die this way—both of us taking our last breaths

With nursery rhymes on our open lips
And the promise of peaceful sleep.

by Jennifer Franklin
from The Boston Review
Jan/Feb 2011


Mohamed ElBaradei, the Inspector

From The New York Times:

Elbaradei The Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei has stated his intention to “nominate myself” to be president of Egypt, but this memoir will not improve his election prospects. In personal terms, it’s hard to imagine anything less thrilling to Egypt’s street revolutionaries than ElBaradei’s accounts of his meals (“The food was very basic, with few choices: noodles, meat and kimchi; no fruit or salad”) and accommodations (“a worn, drab-colored suite consisting of a bedroom and a salon”) in places like North Korea. Nor will his fellow Egyptians be much intrigued by the details of his battles against nuclear proliferators. At the moment, the protestors have other priorities. On the other hand, foreign policy leaders and wonks everywhere will find plenty in this memoir to stir debates about the most vital task for global survival — the need to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, especially to rogue states and terrorists.

That quest is ElBaradei’s story. For decades he was an intimate participant in dramatic nuclear proliferation confrontations that dominated headlines. He served as a senior official at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog and inspection arm, for 13 years (1984-97) before rising to its director-generalship in 1997. He resigned in 2009 after completing his third term and announced his interest in running against President Hosni Mubarak in the election scheduled for this year.

More here.

“Rejoice Not…”

Uri Avnery in Gush Shalom:

“REJOICE NOT when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth, / Lest the Lord see [it], and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him.”.

Osama-death-celebrations1 This is one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible (Proverbs 24:17-18), and indeed in the Hebrew language. It is beautiful in other languages , too, though no translation comes close to the beauty of the original. Of course, it is natural to be glad when one’s enemy is defeated, and the thirst for revenge is a human trait. But gloating – schadenfreude – is something different altogether. An ugly thing. Ancient Hebrew legend has it that God got very angry when the Children of Israel rejoiced as their Egyptian pursuers drowned in the Red Sea. “My creatures are drowning in the sea,” God admonished them, “And you are singing?” These thoughts crossed my mind when I saw the TV shots of jubilant crowds of young Americans shouting and dancing in the street. Natural, but unseemly. The contorted faces and the aggressive body language were no different from those of crowds in Sudan or Somalia. The ugly sides of human nature seem to be the same everywhere.

THE REJOICING may be premature. Most probably, al-Qaeda did not die with Osama bin-Laden. The effect may be entirely different. In 1942 the British killed Abraham Stern, whom they called a terrorist. Stern, whose nom de guerre was Ya’ir, was hiding in a cupboard in an apartment in Tel Aviv. In his case too, it was the movements of his courier that gave him away. After making sure that he was the right man, the British police officer in command shot him dead. That was not the end of his group – rather, a new beginning. It became the bane of British rule in Palestine. Known as the “Stern Gang” (its real name was “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”), it carried out the most daring attacks on British installations and played a significant role in persuading the colonial power to leave the country. Hamas did not die when the Israeli air force killed Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the paralyzed founder, ideologue and symbol of Hamas. As a martyr he was far more effective than as a living leader. His martyrdom attracted many new fighters to the cause. Killing a person does not kill an idea. The Christians even took the cross as their symbol.

More here. (Thanks to Professor C.M. Naim.)

Of Parties in General

HumeDan Sperber has proposed to the readers of his blog that they (we) celebrate Hume’s birthday by posting sections from Hume that are of most relevance for culture and cognition. In these charged political times, I’m choosing one from Essays, Moral and Political (Vol. 1, 1741).

Of Parties in General

Real factions may be divided into those from interest, from principle, and from affection. Of all factions, the first are the most reasonable, and the most excusable. Where two orders of men, such as the nobles and people, have a distinct authority in a government, not very accurately balanced and modelled, they naturally follow a distinct interest; nor can we reasonably expect a different conduct, considering that degree of selfishness implanted in human nature. It requires great skill in a legislator to prevent such parties; and many philosophers are of opinion, that this secret, like the grand elixir, or perpetual motion, may amuse men in theory, but can never possibly be reduced to practice.[8] In despotic governments, indeed, factions often do not appear; but they are not the less real; or rather, they are more real and more pernicious, upon that very account. The distinct orders of men, nobles and people, soldiers and merchants, have all a distinct interest; but the more powerful oppresses the weaker with impunity, and without resistance; which begets a seeming tranquillity in such governments.

Read more »

fukuyama on hayek

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The publication of the definitive edition of Friedrich A. Hayek’s “Constitution of Liberty” coincides with the unexpected best-seller status of his earlier book “The Road to Serfdom” as a result of its promotion by the conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck. In an age when many on the right are worried that the Obama administration’s reform of health care is leading us toward socialism, Hayek’s warnings from the mid-20th century about society’s slide toward despotism, and his principled defense of a minimal state, have found strong political resonance. The new edition of “The Constitution of Liberty,” which was first published in 1960, differs from the original primarily insofar as the extensive endnotes in the original edition have now been placed at the bottom of the page and heavily annotated by the editor, Ronald Hamowy. The notes, often more extensive than the text itself, make clear the extraordinary breadth and depth of Hayek’s erudition, and his ability to wander far beyond economics into history, philosophy, biology and other fields. Unlike Beck, Hayek was a very serious thinker, and it would be too bad if the current association between the two led us to dismiss his thought.

more from Francis Fukuyama at the NYT here.

a world beneath our world

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When we describe ourselves as products of our environment, we usually think of class, money and parenting. Only rarely do we reflect on how our identities are shaped by space, and specifically by the random spaces of the modern city, what the historian Leif Jerram calls “the myriad nooks and crannies, backstreets and thoroughfares, clubs and bars, living rooms and factories”. We forget, for example, that the London Underground, now merely another element of our mundane daily lives, was once novel and exciting, forcing people to behave in entirely new ways. Travelling by Tube is both an intensely solitary experience, each of us cocooned in our thoughts, and an eminently collective one: inside the carriage, all distinctions of class and status are forgotten. No wonder, then, that in the early 1930s, the Soviet authorities saw the building of the Moscow Metro as the ideal way to create a new communist man. As hundreds of thousands of rural peasants flooded into the capital, taking up new identities as technicians and engineers, it seemed that a new proletariat was being born. “How many people,” asked a Pravda headline, “recreated themselves making the Metro?”

more from Dominic Sandbrook at the FT here.

On Hume’s 300th Birthday: A Philosopher in Love

07oped-art-articleInline In late 1960s, perhaps spring of 1968 or 1969, Sidney Morgenbesser taught the first class on Marx to be offered by Columbia’s philosophy department. Sidney’s take was in the spirit of the later to develop analytic Marxism, meaning he read Marx through the lenses of methodological individualism, a rationality assumption, a search for microfoundations, especially for historical materialism, and a rejection of any hint of functional explanation. (He told me this story because I was sitting in on Jon Elster’s class on rational choice.) A junior faculty member (“…then he was to left of me, now he’s to the right of me…” was how Sidney described him) sat in on the class.  The spring passed without the colleague making any comment at all in or about the class. During the summer, the two were having lunch, and Sidney who had been wondering about his colleague’s opinion about the class asked point blank what he thought of it. His colleague looked up and said, “Sidney, that was the best class on David Hume I have ever taken.”

Hume’s and Marx’s birthdays are separated by only 2 days. Today is Hume’s 300th. Robert Zaretsky in the NYT on Hume’s reason and passion and love:

TODAY is the 300th birthday of David Hume, the most important philosopher ever to write in English, according to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The conferences being held on Hume this year in Austria, the Czech Republic, Russia, Finland and Brazil suggest that the encyclopedia’s claim is perhaps too modest.

Panelists will cite Hume’s seismic impact on epistemology, political theory, economics, historiography, aesthetics and religion, as well as his deep skepticism of the powers of reason. But chances are they won’t have much to say about Hume the man.

It’s not surprising; Hume was most concerned with the nature of knowledge, morality, causality — not with fashioning a philosophy for everyday life. And yet his life, like his work, does offer insights about how to live. Consider an episode in Hume’s life that reflects his most provocative and misunderstood claim: that reason is and always will be the slave to our passions. Predictably, it happened in Paris.

In 1761, Hippolyte de Saujon, the estranged wife of the Comte de Boufflers and celebrated mistress of the Prince de Conti, sent a fan letter to Hume. His best-selling “History of England,” she wrote, “enlightens the soul and fills the heart with sentiments of humanity and benevolence.” It must have been written by “some celestial being, free from human passions.”

From Edinburgh, the rotund and flustered Hume, long resigned to a bachelor’s life, thanked Mme. de Boufflers. “I have rusted amid books and study,” he wrote, and “been little engaged … in the pleasurable scenes of life.” But he would be pleased to meet her.

And so he did, two years later, when he was posted to the British Embassy in Paris. Boufflers and Hume quickly became intimate friends, visiting and writing to each other often. Hume soon confessed his attachment and his jealousy of Conti. Boufflers encouraged him, though no one knows how far: “Were I to add our deepened friendship to my other sources of happiness … I cannot conceive how I could ever complain of my destiny.”

A Matter of Degrees

From The New York Times:

Jonathan-caren-tony-kushner In 1940, a Brooklyn woman named Jean Kay filed a suit with the State Supreme Court against the her city’s Board of Higher Education claiming that the renowned mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell was morally unfit to teach at the City College of New York, where he had been offered a professorship. Kay, supported by a host of others in the public scrum, including Bishop William Manning of the Episcopal Church, argued that Russell, who advocated sex before marriage and other heretical lifestyle choices, posed a threat to the virtue of her daughter — even though the impressionable youth was not actually a student at the college. A judge ruled in Kay’s favor. Russell, who was not allowed to speak in his own defense, was denied his appointment at the college, which was, and is, part of the publicly financed City University of New York system. Today, the now-notorious incident is chronicled in an exhibition on City College’s Web site, called “The Struggle for Free Speech at CCNY, 1931-1942,” as is a recounting of the subsequent firings, spurred by the McCarthy era Rapp-Coudert Committee, of faculty members accused of being Communist Party members.

Though the issues and stakes have changed, CUNY now finds itself at the center of another free speech controversy, which has erupted, 71 years and some months after Kay filed her complaint — as Patrick Healy of The Times, among others, reported on Wednesday:

In a rare move, the trustees of the City University of New York have voted to shelve an honorary degree that one of its campuses, John Jay College, planned to award to Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Angels in America.” The vote on Monday evening came after a CUNY trustee said that Mr. Kushner had disparaged the State of Israel in past comments, a characterization that the writer attacked on Wednesday.

More here.

Saturday Poem

The Connoisseur

When it came to happiness she was a gourmet,
a connoisseur of small moments and extravagance.
Like a hummingbird, free as jazz, she floated away.

She wasn’t immune to love. But her need to stay
on top of things meant she didn’t rate romance
when it came to happiness. She was a gourmet

of the ungraspable now, savouring on the spot, without delay,
what the rest of us reheat at a bitter distance.
Like a hummingbird, free as jazz, she floated away.

I envied her of course, which isn’t to say
her dance, her casual way, didn’t leave me in a trance.
When it came to happiness she was a gourmet.

To recognise contentment was her gift, her forte,
sipping the nectar from selected instants
like a hummingbird. Free as jazz, she floated away

from me with the old line: Is there anything I can say
to make this easier for you?
Not a chance.
When it came to happiness she was a gourmet.
Like a hummingbird, free as jazz, she floated away.

by Billy Ramsell
from Complicated Pleasures
publisher: Dedalus, Dublin, © 2007

How Obesity Spreads in Social Networks

From Scientific American:

Social-spread-obesity_1 The people we associate with can have a powerful effect on our behavior—for better or for worse. This holds true for human health and body mass, too. The heavier our close friends and family, the heavier we are likely to be. This correlation, described in 2007 by a team that analyzed data from the longitudinal Framingham Heart Study, is well established. But just how this transpires—whether via shared norms, common behavior or just similar environments—has been the subject of much debate. The authors of the 2007 study proposed that social norms shared among friends and relatives might be a strong determinant of body mass index (BMI). And a new study, published online May 5 in the American Journal of Public Health, drills down to see just how these social forces might be at work. The study of more than 100 women—and hundreds of their friends and family members—however, suggests that social attitudes might not be key in determining obesity clusters after all.

“Going in as anthropologists we assumed that the norms would have a strong influence” on BMI, says Alexandra Brewis, executive director of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University in Tempe. She and her colleagues found themselves surprised how small an effect the norms had on a person's BMI. Just one type of social dynamic seemed to play a statistically significant role—and that was only about 20 percent. But a small effect is not no effect, points out James Fowler, a professor at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and Division of Social Sciences, and co-author of the 2007 The New England Journal of Medicine paper that described the influence of social ties on obesity rates. The finding that even 20 percent of weight status can be attributed to social norms suggests that “at least some of what is spreading are ideas about body size.” And that, he says, is “incredibly exciting,” as it hints at some methods to start stemming the social spread of obesity.

More here.

The endlessly deepening crisis that is Pakistan

Ahmed Rashid in The New Republic, via Goatmilk:

Rashid200 Many factors are helping to spread extremism and its resulting wave of intolerance: the continuing American-led war in Afghanistan and its fallout in Pakistan; a bankrupt economy; a disastrously corrupt and incompetent government; the near-collapse of the public educational system; the fifth largest nuclear arsenal in the world, which is massively expensive to run and to keep safe, and which dictates the country’s foreign policy. But the most important cause of contemporary Pakistani extremism is the simple fact that for the past three decades the state itself has sponsored many of these groups, so as to further its foreign policy aims in Afghanistan or Indian Kashmir. The Pakistani state’s patronage of these militant groups, which has continued even after September 11, 2001, has helped to sustain Islamic extremism in south and central Asia. Is it surprising, then, that none of Pakistan’s neighbors or the West really trusts it?

The military is now partially trying to reverse this trend, but the path ahead is not looking bright. In April, the White House bleakly reported to Congress that “there remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency in Pakistan, despite the … deployment of over 147,000 forces.” The report describes the situation as deteriorating rapidly along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, with no ability by the Pakistani army “to hold and build” in insurgency-hit areas. (A Pakistani government spokesman rejected the report, saying that it “should not be held accountable for the failings of coalition strategy in Afghanistan.”) Europe and the United States are particularly concerned about this situation because almost all the global terrorist plots uncovered recently have involved European citizens of Pakistani origin or in Taliban camps in Pakistan.

Apart from the Taliban insurgency, Pakistan faces another bloody separatist insurgency in the province of Baluchistan and the mayhem created by recent unexplained killings in Karachi.

More here.

Mother of all embarrassments

Ayaz Amir in Pakistan's daily, The News:

ScreenHunter_07 May. 07 10.55 For a country with more than its share of misfortunes and sheer bad luck, we could have done without this warrior of the faith, Osama bin Laden, spreading his beneficence amongst us. He was a headache for us while he lived, but nothing short of a catastrophe in his death. For his killing, and the manner of it, have exposed Pakistan and its security establishment like nothing else.

To say that our security czars and assorted knights have been caught with their pants down would be the understatement of the century. This is the mother of all embarrassments, showing us either to be incompetent – it can’t get any worse than this, Osama living in a sprawling compound a short walk from that nursery school of the army, the Pakistan Military Academy and, if we are to believe this, our ever-vigilant eyes and ears knowing nothing about it – or, heaven forbid, complicit.

I would settle for incompetence anytime because the implications of complicity are too dreadful to contemplate.

And the Americans came, swooping over the mountains, right into the heart of the compound, and after carrying out their operation flew away into the moonless night without our formidable guardians of national security knowing anything about it. This is to pour salt over our wounds. The obvious question which even a child would raise is that if a cantonment crawling with the army such as Abbottabad is not safe from stealthy assault what does it say about the safety of our famous nuke capability, the mainstay of national pride and defence?

More here.

Noam Chomsky: My Reaction to Osama bin Laden’s Death

Noam Chomsky in Guernica:

Chomsky300 It’s increasingly clear that the operation was a planned assassination, multiply violating elementary norms of international law. There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by 80 commandos facing virtually no opposition—except, they claim, from his wife, who lunged towards them. In societies that profess some respect for law, suspects are apprehended and brought to fair trial. I stress “suspects.” In April 2002, the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, informed the press that after the most intensive investigation in history, the FBI could say no more than that it “believed” that the plot was hatched in Afghanistan, though implemented in the UAE and Germany. What they only believed in April 2002, they obviously didn’t know 8 months earlier, when Washington dismissed tentative offers by the Taliban (how serious, we do not know, because they were instantly dismissed) to extradite bin Laden if they were presented with evidence—which, as we soon learned, Washington didn’t have. Thus Obama was simply lying when he said, in his White House statement, that “we quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda.”

Nothing serious has been provided since. There is much talk of bin Laden’s “confession,” but that is rather like my confession that I won the Boston Marathon. He boasted of what he regarded as a great achievement.

More here.

Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality

J9399The first chapter of Patricia S. Churchland's recent book, over at Princeton University Press:

So what is it to be fair? How do we know what to count as fair? Why do we regard trial by ordeal as wrong? Thus opens the door into the vast tangled forest of questions about right and wrong, good and evil, virtues and vices. For most of my adult life as a philosopher, I shied away from plunging unreservedly into these sorts of questions about morality. This was largely because I could not see a systematic way through that tangled forest, and because a lot of contemporary moral philosophy, though venerated in academic halls, was completely untethered to the “hard and fast”; that is, it had no strong connection to evolution or to the brain, and hence was in peril of floating on a sea of mere, albeit confident, opinion. And no doubt the medieval clerics were every bit as confident.

It did seem that likely Aristotle, Hume, and Darwin were right: we are social by nature. But what does that actually mean in terms of our brains and our genes? To make progress beyond the broad hunches about our nature, we need something solid to attach the claim to. Without relevant, real data from evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and genetics, I could not see how to tether ideas about “our nature” to the hard and fast.

Despite being flummoxed, I began to appreciate that recent developments in the biological sciences allow us to see through the tangle, to begin to discern pathways revealed by new data. The phenomenon of moral values, hitherto so puzzling, is now less so. Not entirely clear, just less puzzling. By drawing on converging new data from neuroscience, evolutionary biology, experimental psychology, and genetics, and given a philosophical framework consilient with those data, we can now meaningfully approach the question of where values come from.

From ‘End of History’ Author, a Look at the Beginning and Middle

08fukuyama-articleInline Nicholas Wade on Francis Fukuyama's forthcoming The Origins of Political Order, in the NYT:

Human social behavior has an evolutionary basis. This was the thesis in Edward O. Wilson’s book “Sociobiology” that caused such a stir, even though most evolutionary biologists accept that at least some social behaviors, like altruism, could be favored by natural selection.

In a book to be published in April, “The Origins of Political Order,” Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University presents a sweeping new overview of human social structures throughout history, taking over from where Dr. Wilson’s ambitious synthesis left off.

Dr. Fukuyama, a political scientist, is concerned mostly with the cultural, not biological, aspects of human society. But he explicitly assumes that human social nature is universal and is built around certain evolved behaviors like favoring relatives, reciprocal altruism, creating and following rules, and a propensity for warfare.

Because of this shared human nature, with its biological foundation, “human politics is subject to certain recurring patterns of behavior across time and across cultures,” he writes. It is these worldwide patterns he seeks to describe in an analysis that stretches from prehistoric times to the French Revolution.

Previous attempts to write grand analyses of human development have tended to focus on a single causal explanation, like economics or warfare, or, as with Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel,” on geography. Dr. Fukuyama’s is unusual in that he considers several factors, including warfare, religion, and in particular human social behaviors like favoring kin.

Few people have yet read the book, but it has created a considerable stir in universities where he has talked about it.