Juan Cole: Top Ten Things Americans can be Thankful for

Juan Cole in Informed Comment:

5. Violent crime continues to decline in the United States, with violent crime and property crimes falling 6% in 2010, according to a recent FBI report. Murder, raper, robbery and other serious crimes have fallen to a 48-year low. Whatever the reason for the decline (which is country-wide, and, indeed, mirrored in Canada as well), it argues for repeal of those ‘three strikes and Modern-wind-turbine-and-wind-farm_1you’re out’ laws that have filled up our prisons. The bad news: Americans say in opinion polls that they think crime is getting worse.

6. American democracy remains vital at the grass roots level, whether on the left or the right. The remarkable enthusiasm around the 2008 elections, the vitality of the 2010 congressional elections, the rise of the Tea Party and of Occupy Wall Street, student demonstrations and mobilizations for recalls and defeats of long-term incumbents– all of these developments point to a continued participatory democracy that is a good omen for the future.

7. American innovation and ingenuity remain strong in the face of challenges such as high petroleum prices and climate change from burning coal, gas and oil. Iowa now gets 20 percent of its electricity from wind turbines, and some close observers believe it could eventually go to 50% (as Denmark plans to do).

8. I know it seems as though it is a long way off, but it isn’t. India and Pakistan are taking serious steps to normalize their trade relations by the end of 2012. Anything that reduces tensions between the Asian giants is good for world peace (the US is a de facto ally of Pakistan and would likely get pulled in were relations to deteriorate).

More here.

Who Wrote Shakespeare?

Eric Idle in The New Yorker:

111121_r21582_p233While it is perfectly obvious to everyone that Ben Jonson wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays, it is less known that Ben Jonson’s plays were written by a teen-age girl in Sunderland, who mysteriously disappeared, leaving no trace of her existence, which is clear proof that she wrote them. The plays of Marlowe were actually written by a chambermaid named Marlene, who faked her own orgasm, and then her own death in a Deptford tavern brawl. Queen Elizabeth, who was obviously a man, conspired to have Shakespeare named as the author of his plays, because how could a man who had only a grammar-school education and spoke Latin and a little Greek possibly have written something as bad as “All’s Well That Ends Well”? It makes no sense. It was obviously an upper-class twit who wished to disguise his identity so that Vanessa Redgrave could get a job in her old age.

Many people believe that Richard III not only was a good man who would never hurt a fly but actually wrote “She Stoops to Conquer,” and that the so-called author, Oliver Goldsmith, found the play under a tree in 1773 while visiting Bosworth Field, now a multistory car park (clearly an attempt to cover up the evidence of the ruse). Oscar Wilde’s plays were written by a stable boy named Simon, though Wilde gave them both a good polish. Chaucer was written by a Frenchman on holiday, while Simone de Beauvoir wrote all of Balzac and a good deal of “Les Misérables,” despite the fact that she was not yet born when she did so. Beau Brummell wrote nearly all of Jane Austen, and two men and a cat wrote most of Charles Dickens, with the exception of “A Tale of Two Cities,” which Napoleon wrote while visiting St. Helena. Incidentally, Napoleon was not Napoleon but a man named Trevor Francis, who later turned up playing for Birmingham City.

More here. [Thanks to Maeve Adams.]

Pakistan: The Ally From Hell

Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_05 Nov. 24 10.26Much of the world, of course, is anxious about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and for good reason: Pakistan is an unstable and violent country located at the epicenter of global jihadism, and it has been the foremost supplier of nuclear technology to such rogue states as Iran and North Korea. It is perfectly sensible to believe that Pakistan might not be the safest place on Earth to warehouse 100 or more nuclear weapons. These weapons are stored on bases and in facilities spread across the country (possibly including one within several miles of Abbottabad, a city that, in addition to having hosted Osama bin Laden, is home to many partisans of the jihadist group Harakat-ul-Mujahideen). Western leaders have stated that a paramount goal of their counterterrorism efforts is to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of jihadists.

“The single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term, and long-term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon,” President Obama said last year at an international nuclear-security meeting in Washington. Al-Qaeda, Obama said, is “trying to secure a nuclear weapon—a weapon of mass destruction that they have no compunction at using.”

Pakistan would be an obvious place for a jihadist organization to seek a nuclear weapon or fissile material: it is the only Muslim-majority state, out of the 50 or so in the world, to have successfully developed nuclear weapons; its central government is of limited competence and has serious trouble projecting its authority into many corners of its territory (on occasion it has difficulty maintaining order even in the country’s largest city, Karachi); Pakistan’s military and security services are infiltrated by an unknown number of jihadist sympathizers; and many jihadist organizations are headquartered there already.

More here.

India in the Time of Gandhi

9145.essay-gandhiDhirendra K Jha in Open the Magazine:

History, or certainly its interpretation, is always fraught with risk, but it would seem that one crucial episode of Indian history, the events leading up to the annexation of Hyderabad and the years immediately after, should have been studied well enough for there to be little reason for controversy. But the position taken by Ramachandra Guha in a recent debate with Prakash Karat that unfolded on the pages of Caravan magazine suggests that neither are the facts of the episode known well enough, nor are their interpretations anywhere near settled.

While the debate between the two has more to do with the contemporary situation of the Indian Left, Guha has managed to roil the Left with his controversial remark relating to the Communist-led peasant rebellion that swept through the Telangana portion of Hyderabad princely state at the dawn of Independence. The uprising against the Nizam’s autocratic regime began in 1946. Though the Nizam surrendered to the Union in September 1948 when the Indian Army entered Hyderabad, the peasant rebellion against landlords continued and was formally withdrawn by Communists only in October 1951. For almost a year after India’s independence, the Nizam did his utmost to block Hyderabad’s accession to the Union. Around the middle of 1947, the Nizam, fearful of losing control, sought to play the Muslim card; at his behest, Kasim Razavi, president of the Majlis-i-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen, created a paramilitary body of Islamic supremacists called Razakars. The Ittehad and its corps of Razakars started a reign of terror to keep Hyderabad an independent Islamic state and the Nizam its representative and symbol of sovereignty.

What Guha wrote in his reply to Karat, published in the November 2011 issue of Caravan, was this: ‘These Islamic supremacists (Razakars) came to the fore in the middle of 1947, whereupon they advised the Nizam not to join the Indian Union. This was a demand the communists were sympathetic to, since they thought an independent Hyderabad would be more congenial to a Leninist revolution.’

The Exceptional Life and Ignominious Death of Angelo Soliman

20111105_BKP522Prospero in the Economist:

ANGELO SOLIMAN is probably best known in his fictional incarnation as the disgraced African servant boy in “The Man Without Qualities”, Robert Musil’s novel about the end of the Austrian monarchy. The real Soliman mixed in Vienna’s high society. His ignominy came in death rather than life.

Soliman, the subject of an exhibition at the Wien Museum in Vienna, arrived in Austria as a slave from western Africa, where he was born in 1721. There was a fashion for “House Moors” at this time and Soliman was apparently an exceptional man. He acted as a soldier and adviser in one princely household and then came to Vienna in 1753 to serve as a valet and tutor in another. There were some 40 African inhabitants of Vienna in the 18th century—many of them noble servants like Soliman. He successfully integrated into Austrian society, joining an elite Free Mason’s lodge to which Mozart belonged and strolling in the capital’s tree-lined Augarten with Emperor Joseph II.

In modern terms, he might be seen as the perfect immigrant. But after he died his stuffed skin was put on display in the imperial natural history collection, a fate that reflected a deep ambivalence towards nonwhites. In Vienna this ambivalence continues to this day, as illustrated in a video in the exhibition of interviews with Africans now living in the Austrian capital.

“Soliman: An African in Vienna” devotes as much attention to this racial context as to the former slave’s life. Pictures, documents and household objects from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries portray Africa and the Orient as both frightful and fascinating. African men are depicted as savages, docile servants or courageous fighters in the Ottoman armies that besieged Europe’s south-eastern flank.

The Failure Addict

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It takes a special kind of self-absorption to believe that your failures will fascinate — a need to be loved not for your talents but despite them. John Phillips, founder of the Mamas and the Papas — the 1960s quartet that rode a string of deceptively sunny-seeming radio hits to become icons of hippie hedonism — exemplified this species of celebrity narcissism. Gifted but irretrievably dissolute, Phillips had always seemed more interested in romanticizing failure and squandering talent than applying his ample supply of it with any consistency. Even in his chart-ruling heyday, he seemed perversely, persistently drawn to themes of disappointment, betrayal, and regret (albeit cleverly masked by resplendent harmonies and catchy melodies). The Mamas and the Papas’ hits are preoccupied with ennui, broken relationships, and futile fantasies of escape: California dreaming on such a winter’s day. The first Mamas and the Papas album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (1966) went to the top of Billboard’s album chart and spawned several hits, including “Monday, Monday” and “California Dreamin’,” which have become durable folk standards. And already, on the group’s second album, rushed out later that year to capitalize on the band’s momentum, Phillips was exuberantly singing, “I can’t wait to let you down.”

more from Rob Horning at The New Inquiry here.

Why the Germans? Why the Jews?

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The Prussian reforms of 1808 to 1812 granted all citizens freedom of trade, and put an end to serfdom and what until then had been utterly unchecked arbitrariness towards the Jews. The Jews were still only allowed to become public servants in exceptional cases and certainly never officers in the military, but unlike the Christian majority, they made the most of the new opportunities. They emancipated themselves and at high speed. Germany, with its half-hearted reformism, sluggish economic development (until 1870), and strong legal security provided a fertile ground. To top it all, Germany had some of the best Gymnasiums and universities in Europe, as well as some of the worst primary education. Unlike the majority of their Christian and still largely illiterate peers, Jewish boys as a rule had always been taught to read and write Hebrew. Their parents did not put silver spoons in their cradles, but all manner of educational nourishment. Jewish parents knew exactly how much cultural skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic would improve their children’s chances, whereas Christian parents and clerics were still claiming, right up into the 20th century, that “reading is bad for the eyes!”

more from Götz Aly at Sign and Sight here.

this quiet, vexing show

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Imagine it’s 1981. You’re an artist, in love with art, smitten with art history. You’re also a woman, with almost no mentors to look to; art history just isn’t that into you. Any woman approaching art history in the early eighties was attempting to enter an almost foreign country, a restricted and exclusionary domain that spoke a private language. Merely the act of creating art while female, in this atmosphere, was insurrectionary. How to love art without killing yourself or acquiescing to the rules of the game? How to get around, burrow under, enter, or blow up those apparently impervious walls? The late painter Elizabeth Murray rightly observed, “Seeing historically belongs to the guys … The greatest part about being a woman … is that I’m not really a part of [that art history]. I can do whatever I want.” Sherrie Levine’s tightly controlled, academically stringent, sometimes stultifying survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art shows how one artist from this generation cross-examined art history, reveled in it, and smashed it against the windshield of her anger. Levine’s subtle Swiftian thrashing of and love affair with the patriarchal canon are everywhere in this show. Her strategy was simple and not entirely novel. At the time, in the wake of Warhol, Pop, and conceptual art, numerous artists were investigating appropriation and representing culture, critically, satirically, and otherwise. It was an ism that quickly ran rampant. However, instead of rummaging through movies and magazines, as her far more lauded, much higher-priced colleague Richard Prince did (and still does), Levine tunneled into the storehouse of modern-art history, making obvious copies—bigger, smaller, in different materials—of work by Courbet, Mondrian, Brancusi, Léger, and many others.

more from Jerry Saltz at New York Magazine here.

Pepper Spray and the Weaponization of Food

From The Village Voice:

Weapon4-thumb-569x328​Sure, I'm pissed when the cops hose demonstrators with pepper spray, not only because they're setting out to illegally deprive peaceful people of their constitutionally guaranteed rights, but because they're doing it with a food product that might otherwise give culinary pleasure. What food will be used to harass us next? Here are five possibilities for weaponizable edibles.

1. Durian – Man, if you launch one of those big bumpy suckers via a giant slingshot into a peaceful sit-in, just watch as the protesters scatter, screaming and nearly vomiting. Kinda like nerve gas. And the puke will provide justification to send in the Sanitation Department again for “hygenic reasons.”

2. Cabernet Sauvignon Vinegar – Put this incredibly strong acid in the hoses and point them at those OWS wusses, and they'll be weeping the moment it gets into their eyes. Save the run-off for a vinaigrette to be used by Bloomberg's private chef.

3. Okra Slime – Put this stuff in baggies, throw it at the feet of protesters. They'll be slipping and sliding, and won't be able to escape from the truncheon-swinging cops.

(Picture: An ancient Roman sling and a very ripe durian could have cleared Zuccotti Park faster and at a fraction of the cost being wasted on pepper spray.)

More here.

The psychological science behind an oops moment

From PhysOrg:

Oops-the-rick-perry-moment-00-2Over the last week or so, the phrase “brain freeze” has taken on a new meaning and caused a bit of media frenzy – first over Rick Perry’s debate flub on television, followed immediately by Herman Cain’s floundering on a question. A moment like this can happen to the best of us, whether it is captured live on national television or in private. The media has focused extensively on these two politicians and their momentary lapses in memory, but perhaps it is time to examine the psychological science of these kinds of brain-freeze moments and why they occur. “The human memory system is characterized by a virtually unlimited storage capacity that is coupled with retrieval processes that are fallible and probabilistic; in fact, most of what is stored in our memories is not retrievable at any given time in any given situation,” says Robert A. Bjork, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. This is usually a good thing, he notes, because we need to be able to keep our memories current. “There is an adaptive side to our retrieval limitations, but retrieval failures can nonetheless be very embarrassing,” Bjork explains. Though these brain freeze moments might have evoked much laughter and ridicule, Bjork says that some sort of sympathy might be in order as memory retrieval failures occur on an increasingly frequent basis as people age – not only because there are cognitive deficits that accompany aging, but also because people constantly accumulate information as they age, thus making the task of recalling information more difficult as they become older. However, Bjork agrees that Perry’s and Cain’s memory failures are somewhat embarrassing, though for somewhat different reasons.

“In Perry’s case, it is embarrassing because eliminating those three departments is part of his platform, so his retrieving the names of those three departments and what they are responsible for should have been highly practiced. It would not have been surprising, perhaps, had he recalled an inexact—but semantically correct—name of one of those departments, but his drawing a complete blank was surprising. In Cain’s case, his memory failure was less surprising, but perhaps more embarrassing, because it appeared to reflect a lack of encoding the information in the first place,” says Bjork.

More here.

Languages, like genes, can tell evolutionary tales

Bruce Bower in Science News:

ScreenHunter_03 Nov. 23 10.44Talk is cheap, but scientific value lurks in all that gab. Words cascading out of countless flapping gums contain secrets about the evolution of language that a new breed of researchers plan to expose with statistical tools borrowed from genetics.

For more than a century, traditional linguists have spent much of their time doing fieldwork — listening to native speakers to pick up on words with similar sounds, such as mother in English and madre in Spanish, and comparing how various tongues arrange subjects, verbs, objects and other grammatical elements into sentences. Such information has allowed investigators to group related languages into families and reconstruct ancestral forms of talk. But linguists generally agree that their methods can revive languages from no more than 10,000 years ago. Borrowing of words and grammar by speakers of neighboring languages, the researchers say, erases evolutionary signals from before that time.

Now a small contingent of researchers, many of them evolutionary biologists who typically have nothing to do with linguistics, are looking at language from in front of their computers, using mathematical techniques imported from the study of DNA to wring scenarios of language evolution out of huge amounts of comparative speech data.

These data analyzers assume that words and other language units change systematically as they are passed from one generation to the next, much the way genes do. Charles Darwin similarly argued in 1871 that languages, like biological species, have evolved into a series of related forms.

And in the same way that geneticists use computerized statistical approaches to put together humankind’s family tree from the DNA of living people and a few long-dead individuals, these newcomers can generate family trees, called phylogenies, for languages.

More here.

Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding

Melvin Konner in the New York Review of Books:

Konner_1-120811_jpg_470x419_q85It is possible to see Hrdy’s most recent book, Mothers and Others, as the third in a trilogy that began with The Woman That Never Evolved. It may be the most important. As she demolished, in the first, the idol of an evolved passive femininity, and in the second, the serene, always giving maternal goddess, in her third synthetic work she takes on another cultural and biological ideal: the mother who goes it alone. In our once male-dominated vision of evolution, we had the lone brave man, the hunter with his spear, and the lone enduring woman nurturing her young beneath the African sun; they made a deal, the first social contract, exchanging the services each was suited to by genetic destiny.

Hrdy has not been alone in challenging this myth. A conference and book edited by Richard Lee and Irven DeVore, although it was called Man the Hunter, showed that women brought in half or more of the food of hunter-gatherers by collecting vegetables, fruit, and nuts.3 This meant that, given the unpredictability of hunting success and the human need for plant foods, the primordial deal between the sexes was rather more complex than we thought. It also suggested that women had power in these societies; that men listened to them and decisions were made by consensus, not by male fiat as in more complex, hierarchical societies.

More here.

The wondrous database that reveals what Americans checked out of the library a century ago

John Plotz in Slate:

111116_CB_MuncieLibrary_003_jpg_CROP_rectangle3-largeFor as long as I can remember, I have wanted to read like the dead. Not just to read dead authors—something a little bit creepier. Yes, I am aware that recapturing the actual experiences of long-ago readers is impossible, like visiting Mars or traveling in time. Still, I can’t help reading inscriptions, plucking out old bookmarks, decoding faded marginalia. I catch myself wondering who was reading this a century ago, and where, and why?

So when I learned about What Middletown Read, a database that tracks the borrowing records of the Muncie Public Library between 1891 and 1902, I had some of the same feelings physicists probably have when new subatomic particles show up in their cloud chambers. Could you see how many times a particular book had been taken out? Could you find out when? And by whom? Yes, yes, and yes. You could also find out who those patrons were: their age, race, gender, occupation (and whether that made them blue or white collar, skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled), and their names and how they signed them.

What Middletown Read is based on an incredible trove of unprepossessing ledger books found in an attic during the renovation of Muncie’s 1904 library, and brought to light by Ball State University English Professor Frank Felsenstein. “Middletown,” if you’re wondering, is Muncie’s academic drag-queen name: Ever since the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published a pathbreaking pair of books about the city (Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, 1929, and Middletown in Transition : A Study in Cultural Conflicts, 1937) the place has been awash in social scientists studying its every move; this database is in fact part of Ball State’s Center for Middletown Studies.

More here.

How Italy’s Democracy Leads to Financial Crisis

296925_1741170948622_1819163272_1202603_3138447_nJonathan Hopkin in Foreign Affairs:

The replacement of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with Mario Monti, a former European commissioner, last week marks a new stage in the European financial crisis. Along with bond values, the crisis now seems to be wiping out democratically elected governments. Faced with unbearable market pressure, Italian politicians have opted to hand power to technocrats, expecting that they will somehow enjoy greater legitimacy as they impose painful measures on an angry population. This will not work.

On one level, Italy's problems are less acute than those facing the region's other troubled economies. Its economic structure, which is based on a large manufacturing sector focused on exporting high-value products, has more in common with Germany than with Greece. The country has unparalleled cultural riches, a highly educated population, and a strong tradition of entrepreneurship. And despite its apparently dysfunctional institutions, Italy remains the eighth-largest economy in the world. On another level, Italy's problems are huge. Its debt-to-GDP ratio is massive; it has now reached 119 percent (although no one batted an eye when the ratio was 121 percent ten years ago). The markets seem convinced that its recent sclerotic growth has made the debt level unsustainable without structural reform. External observers have come up with long lists of such reforms, which, they argue, Monti will be able to implement quickly.

If things were that simple, however, Italians would have voted for someone like Monti in the first place. If anything, the last two decades have shown that there are no quick technocratic fixes for the Italian political economy.