the good war?


In February, the last surviving American veteran of the First World War died. It is hard to imagine the day when we say goodbye to the last survivor of the Second World War, so large do the “good war” and the “greatest generation” still loom in the national imagination. But the calendar and the census do not lie. Some 16 million Americans served in the military during World War II. On the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 2001, about 5.5 million were still living. This year, as we prepare to mark the 70th anniversary, the number is closer to 1.5 million, and it drops by almost a thousand a day. The passage of time doesn’t just turn life into history; it also changes the contours of history itself. Over the last several years, historians, philosophers and others have begun to think about the Second World War in challenging and sometimes disturbing new ways, reflecting the growing distance between the country that fought the war and the country that remembers it. As always when history is debated, the stakes are not just the past but the present and future as well. Even as the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made Americans less confident about the ways we use our military power, the struggle with the Axis remains the classic example of American might deployed for virtuous ends.

more from Adam Kirsch at the NYT here.

Saturday Poem


my grandmother
doesn’t know pain
she believes that
famine is nutrition
poverty is wealth
thirst is water
her body like a grapevine winding around a walking stick
her hair bees’ wings
she swallows the sun-speckles of pills
and calls the internet the telephone to america
her heart has turned into a rose the only thing you can do
is smell it
pressing yourself to her chest
there’s nothing else you can do with it
only a rose
her arms like stork’s legs
red sticks
and i am on my knees
howling like a wolf
at the white moon of your skull
i’m telling you it’s not pain
just the embrace of a very strong god
one with an unshaven cheek that prickles when he kisses you.

by Valzhyna Mort
from Factory of Tears
Publisher: Copper Canyon Press,
© 2008
translation: Valzhyna Mort, Franz Wright
and Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright

The new parenting catfight: Tiger Moms vs Fun Slobs

From Spiked:

Tiger The latest battle of the parenting tribes pits the Tiger Moms against the Fun Slobs. In one corner growls Amy Chua, proud hot-houser of her daughters, whose book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother extols the virtues of achievement-oriented, ‘Chinese-style’ parenting. In the other chills Bryan Caplan, whose book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids tells us that we could have more fun raising our little darlings if we just recognised that none of this pushy parenting works in any case. Our children’s fate is in their genes, apparently – and nothing that parents do (at least after very early childhood) makes a blind bit of difference to how our children will turn out.

…The truth is that there is a lot more to raising children than this. As adults, it doesn’t really matter if we see ourselves as Tiger Moms, Fun Slobs, or some other category entirely, provided that we are clear on two things. First of all, to the extent that parents can shape how our children turn out, it will not be determined by the number of hours parents put into their children’s piano practice, but by the context of our family lives as a whole. It is simply bizarre to pretend that the impact of particular parenting practices can be separated out from other factors, from where families live and how they earn their living, to their values, relationships and experiences. In any event, there are all sorts of other experiences that children have – through friends and schools, for example – that will have a big impact beyond the realm of the family.

More here.

How Paris Created America

From The New York Times:

Schiff-1305740070045-popup-v2 David McCullough has stressed France’s pre-eminent role in American history for years. We would not, he has argued, have a country without the French, who have permanently and profoundly shaped us. If anyone could get away with suggesting that room be made on Mount Rushmore for Astérix it is McCullough. He seems to have had something else in mind, however. With “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” he explores the intellectual legacy that France settled on its 19th-century visitors. The result is an epic of ideas, as well as an exhilarating book of spells.

The tradition began very much as a case of “Lafayette, nous voici.” The first pilgrims were nearly all single, wealthy men in their 20s, serious of purpose and ambitious by nature. A number of them had played a role in the French general’s triumphant return to America. They were provincial and inexperienced. They had never before sailed. They knew little French literature. They did not yet suspect that one could be seduced by breakfast. Following a tradition established years earlier by John Adams, they came to Paris to do their homework. Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Sumner and Samuel F. B. Morse looked to the city as library and laboratory rather than as liberation. The idea was to settle in Paris to “study hard,” a concept that would put most junior-year-abroad programs out of business.

More here.

With digitized text from five million books, one is never at a loss for words

Brian Hayes in American Scientist:

Istock_000004215765xsmall Books are being blown to bits. New ones are “born digital”; millions of old ones are being assimilated into the mind of the machine.

Some people question the wisdom of this transition to digital reading matter. Paper and ink have served us pretty well for a thousand years or more. Is it prudent to store everything we know in tiny smudges of electric charge we can’t see or touch? Critics also worry about who will wind up owning our cultural heritage. And then there are the sentimentalists, who say it’s just not the same curling up by the fireside with a good Kindle.

Well, I for one welcome our new computer overlords. And I would like to point out that books are not only for reading. There are other things we (and our computers) can do with the words in books. We can count them, sort them, make comparisons among them, search for patterns in their distribution, classify them, catalog them, analyze them. Yes, these are nerdy, mechanical, reductionist assaults on literature—but they are also methods of extracting meaning from text, just as reading is. And they scale better.

More here.

Protests and Violence On the Lebanon-Israel Border

James Reddick in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_04 May. 27 17.24 In the hills of South Lebanon, just beyond Bint Jbeil, the convoy of buses carrying Palestinians and Lebanese sympathetic to their cause toward the border with Israel finally reached an impasse—a rural traffic jam. The winding, narrow roads didn’t have the capacity for a full-scale “Return to Palestine,” as the organizers of the May 15th Nakba demonstrations were calling it. Preferring to climb by foot, crowds emerged from the buses and streamed across the hills.

Sixty-three years before, along this same stretch of road, thousands had crossed the border in the other direction to flee the 1947–48 civil war in Mandatory Palestine and then the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Today, Nakba, or “catastrophe,” is mourned on the same day Israelis celebrate independence. The elderly—those few who may recall an adolescence spent in their homeland of Palestine—trudged alongside the hordes of youth born mostly into Lebanon’s refugee camps. Here and there the marching column widened to pass the elderly who had collapsed in the road from exhaustion and were being tended to by their families.

We marched around the last winding bend before the farm land of Israel came into view, unaware that Palestinian demonstrators along the Syrian border with the Golan Heights had managed to breach the fence and pour into the Israeli town of Majdal Shams. Had we known this at the time we may have had a sense of what was to come.

More here.

The Perspective of Terrence Malick

Jon Baskin in The Point:

ScreenHunter_03 May. 27 17.18 The director of four films beginning with Badlands in 1973, Terrence Malick studied philosophy with Stanley Cavell at Harvard before abandoning a doctorate on Heidegger, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein. A promising journalist and academic—as well as an outstanding high school football player—in 1969 Malick published what is still the authoritative translation of Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons. That same year he ended his academic career and enrolled alongside David Lynch and Paul Schrader in the American Film Institute’s new conservatory, developed to encourage “film as art” in America. Although his background has long encouraged commentators to investigate his influences and sources, Malick’s films also merit consideration as artistic achievements that confront their audiences with a distinctive experience. Like any great filmmaker, Malick demands that we see in a new way. Unlike most filmmakers, his films are also about the problem of seeing—that is, of perspective.

Each of Malick’s films presents a conversation or debate between what he suggests is the dominant Western worldview and a competing perspective. Malick follows Heidegger in identifying the Western worldview with the Enlightenment drive to systematize and conquer nature. According to this point of view, man demonstrates his significance through technical and scientific mastery—and on an individual level, he falls into insignificance when he fails to win the acclaim of other men. The competing perspective in Malick’s films is the artistic or filmic perspective, of which the paragon example is Malick’s camera itself. Malick’s goal as a filmmaker is to educate the human eye to see like his camera does.

More here.

genetic surprises


Just where did our ancestors come from? Indian diversity has long been reduced by many historians to a simple story of an invasion of Aryans pushing Dravidians further south in the Subcontinent. But an analysis of the genes that Indians bear throws up enough evidence to rubbish that theory, pointing instead to a far more complex set of migrations—and perhaps reverse migrations—many millennia earlier than commonly supposed. To get a clearer picture of our origins, Open sent DNA samples of a couple of celebrities, John Abraham and Baichung Bhutia, alongwith those of four magazine staffers to the National Geographic Deep Ancestry Project. Based on the genetic markers thus identified and other research conducted by scientists, we present a plausible map of our origins. Be prepared for some surprises.

more from Hartosh Singh Bal at Open Magazine here.

Obama’s Middle East: Rhetoric and Reality

David Bromwich in the New York Review of Books:

Obama_and_Bibi_jpg_470x348_q85 Being president of the world has sometimes seemed a job more agreeable to Barack Obama than being president of the United States. The Cairo speech of June 2009 was his first performance in that role, and he said many things surprising to hear from an American leader—among them, the statement that “it is time for [Israeli] settlements to stop.” But as is now widely understood, the aftermath of Cairo was not properly planned for. Though Obama had called on Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the expansion of settlements, he never backed his demand with a specific sanction or the threat of a loss of favor. His contact with peaceful dissidents in the Arab world remained invisible and was clearly not a major concern of his foreign policy. Soon after the Cairo speech, the Afghan war and drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal regions took center stage.

Yet Obama has always preferred the symbolic authority of the grand utterance to the actual authority of a directed policy—a policy fought for in particulars, carefully sustained, and traceable to his own intentions. The command to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and the attempt to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike, which closely followed the bin Laden success, are the exceptions that prove the rule: actions of a moment, decided and triggered by the president alone. His new Middle East speech, at the State Department on May 19, was in this sense a return to a favorite genre.

Before an international audience, Obama tends to speak as if he were the United States addressing the world; and he treats the United States as the most grown-up country in the world. This posture carries a risk of parental finger-wagging, which our president—still young as a parent and young as a leader—doesn’t sufficiently guard against.

More here.

Religion is a sin


Saving God and Surviving Death: Mark Johnston has gone for the double, and I’m tempted to think he has succeeded, on his own terms, many of which seem about as good as terms get in this strange part of the park. I don’t, however, agree with his reasons or share his motive for attempting to explain how we can survive death, and I doubt the necessity of some of the matériel in his admittedly fabulous argumentative armamentarium. I’ll be jiggered if I survive death on Johnston’s terms; I don’t know whether he holds out much hope for himself. And his success won’t please anyone who believes in anything supernatural. Any conception of God as essentially a supernatural being is idolatry in Johnston’s book. All regular adherents of the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – are therefore idolaters. And they go further: they want a ‘personal’ God, a ‘Cosmic Intervener who might confer special worldly advantages on his favourites’. They should be ashamed of themselves, at least if they’ve had any education; they’re moral babies. Here Johnston seems close to Iris Murdoch, who asserted that there is no ‘responsive superthou’. It’s this kind of conception of God that moves Thomas Nagel to say: ‘It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God … It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.’ In Murdoch and Nagel I think we find the genuine spiritual impulse or religious temperament, which never invests in supernatural entities.

more from Galen Strawson at the LRB here.

A Miniature Fascination

From The Paris Review:

Dining When the 104-year-old copper heiress Huguette Clark died earlier this week, obituaries invariably included the word eccentric. This was surely due at least somewhat to her apparent preference for making her home in hospitals. But part of it—the bigger part, I’m guessing—was her passion for dollhouses. In her later years, Clark retreated into an expensive miniature world, surrounding herself with large amounts of the tiny. Second childhood? God complex? Arrested development? Maybe. But Clark wasn’t alone. Miniatures have exerted a fascination over adults—and often, rich and powerful adults—since Duke Albrecht V forced large portions of a sixteenth-century court into the construction of what’s known as the “Munich Baby House.” Queen Mary’s Windsor Castle fantasia—furnished and outfitted by practically every artisan with a royal appointment—is famous; less well known is the elaborate dollhouse for which Alice Longworth Roosevelt frequently neglected guests, or the modern-art masterpiece created in the 1920s by the bohemian Stettheimer sisters.

…But miniaturists—the people, the hobby, the history—deserve more than to be dismissed as an easy metaphor. It’s a fascinating world that continues to capture people—whether they admit to it or not. Wrote one confidante of Clark in later life, “She just wanted to be home and play with her dolls.”

More here.

Researchers track the secret lives of feral and free-roaming house cats

From PhysOrg:

Cat Researchers (and some cat-owners) wanted to know: What do feral and free-roaming house cats do when they're out of sight? A two-year study offers a first look at the daily lives of these feline paupers and princes, whose territories overlap on the urban, suburban, rural and agricultural edges of many towns.

…As expected, in most cases the un-owned cats had larger territories than the pet cats and were more active throughout the year. But the size of some of the feral cats' home ranges surprised even the researchers. One of the feral cats, a mixed breed male, had a home range of 547 hectares (1,351 acres), the largest range of those tracked. Like most of the feral cats, this lone ranger was seen in both urban and rural sites, from residential and campus lawns to , forests and a restored prairie. “That particular male cat was not getting food from humans, to my knowledge, but somehow it survived out there amidst coyotes and ,” Horn said. “It crossed every street in the area where it was trapped. (It navigated) stoplights, parking lots. We found it denning under a softball field during a game.” The owned cats had significantly smaller territories and tended to stay close to home. The mean home range for pet cats in the study was less than two hectares (4.9 acres).

More here.

Friday Poem

The Death of the Hired Man

Mary sat musing on the lamp-flame at the table
Waiting for Warren. When she heard his step,
She ran on tip-toe down the darkened passage
To meet him in the doorway with the news
And put him on his guard. “Silas is back.”
She pushed him outward with her through the door
And shut it after her. “Be kind,” she said.
She took the market things from Warren’s arms
And set them on the porch, then drew him down
To sit beside her on the wooden steps.

“When was I ever anything but kind to him?
But I’ll not have the fellow back,” he said.
“I told him so last haying, didn’t I?
‘If he left then,’ I said, ‘that ended it.’
What good is he? Who else will harbour him
At his age for the little he can do?
What help he is there’s no depending on.
Off he goes always when I need him most.
‘He thinks he ought to earn a little pay,
Enough at least to buy tobacco with,
So he won’t have to beg and be beholden.’
‘All right,’ I say, ‘I can’t afford to pay
Any fixed wages, though I wish I could.’
‘Someone else can.’ ‘Then someone else will have to.’
I shouldn’t mind his bettering himself
If that was what it was. You can be certain,
When he begins like that, there’s someone at him
Trying to coax him off with pocket-money,—
In haying time, when any help is scarce.
In winter he comes back to us. I’m done.”

“Sh! not so loud: he’ll hear you,” Mary said.

“I want him to: he’ll have to soon or late.”

Read more »

Origins of Political Order: Francis Fukuyama and the Start of History

AD20110527781497-The Origins of Richard Gowan in The National:

It is not too much to say that Fukuyama had no choice but to write this book. Twenty years ago he seized the post-Cold War moment to raise the possibility of the “end of history” – the moment that liberal democracy trumped all other political systems. Versions of this idea informed the Clinton administration's efforts to draw ex-Communist states into a liberal world order and the Bush administration's democratisation agenda.

On some college campuses, it has been fashionable to suggest that Fukuyama's thesis led directly to America's misadventure in Iraq and the struggle to build a modern state in Afghanistan. This is piffle. Anyone who has read detailed accounts of the Bush team's debates over Afghanistan and Iraq will recognise that these campaigns were shaped by an initial post-9/11 panic, old-fashioned power politics and much Washingtonian infighting.

Yet, to his credit, Fukuyama has worried a good deal about why his country's efforts to transform the world have gone awry. He not only disowned the neoconservatives in a finely argued 2007 polemic, America at the Crossroads, but has written and edited a number of technical studies of development policy and nation-building. Even ardent admirers may have missed his article, “State-building in the Solomon Islands”, in the 2008 Pacific Economic Review, cited dutifully in The Origins of Political Order.

Although Fukuyama notes that this new work is partially inspired by a preoccupation with “the real-world problems of weak and failed states”, it is evidently his return to the big picture. The book is Fukuyama's attempt to address those “real-world problems” by grappling with the sociological and philosophical flaws of long-defunct societies.

This is a remarkably old-fashioned project. In tracing the highways and byways of human development, Fukuyama appears far more interested in probing the classics of political philosophy and sociology than current development theory.

Woody Allen on Inspiration

Allen-intOver at Five Books:

Many of the five books you’ve chosen will be discoveries to our readers, but one will be familiar to all. When Annie Hall moved out of Alvy’s apartment, they fought over who owned The Catcher in the Rye. When did you first read it and what did it mean to you?

The Catcher in the Rye has always had special meaning for me because I read it when I was young – 18 or so. It resonated with my fantasies about Manhattan, the Upper East Side and New York City in general.

It was such a relief from the other books I was reading at the time, which all had a quality of homework to them. For me, reading Middlemarch or Sentimental Education was work, whereas reading The Catcher in the Rye was pure pleasure. The burden of entertainment is on the author. Salinger fulfils that obligation from the first sentence on.

Reading and pleasure didn’t go together for me when I was younger. Reading was something you did for school, something you did for obligation, something you did if you wanted to take out a certain kind of woman. It wasn’t something I did for fun. But The Catcher in the Rye was different. It was amusing, it was in my vernacular, and the atmosphere held great emotional resonance for me. I reread it on a few occasions and I always get a kick out of it.

At least until you created your familiar film persona, Holden Caulfield was the icon of American angst. Did you identify with him?

Not in any deep way.

Salinger’s protagonist is driven mad by the ugliness in life. What drives you nuts?

The human predicament: the fact that we’re living in a nightmare that everyone is making excuses for and having to find ways to sugarcoat. And the fact that life, at its best, is a pretty horrible proposition. But people’s behavior makes it much, much worse than it has to be.