The United States is the deadliest wealthy country in the world. Can science help us explain, or even solve, our national crisis?

Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries blog at Scientific American:

ScreenHunter_11 Jul. 27 11.41While everyone agrees the blame should ultimately be placed on the perpetrator of this violence, the fact remains that the United States has one of the highest murder rates in the industrialized world. Of the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks fifth in homicides just behind Brazil (highest), Mexico, Russia, and Estonia. Our nation also holds the dubious honor of being responsible for half of the worst mass shootings in the last 30 years. How can we explain why the United States has nearly three times more murders per capita than neighboring Canada and ten times more than Japan? What makes the land of the free such a dangerous place to live?

There have been hundreds of thoughtful explorations of this problem in the last week, though three in particular have encapsulated the major issues. Could it be, as science writer David Dobbs argues at Wired, that “an American culture that fetishizes violence,” such as the Batman franchise itself, has contributed to our fall? “Culture shapes the expression of mental dysfunction,” Dobbs writes, “just as it does other traits.”

Perhaps the push arrived with the collision of other factors, as veteran journalist Bill Moyers maintains, when the dark side of human nature encountered political allies who nurture our destructive impulses? “Violence is our alter ego, wired into our Stone Age brains,” he says. “The NRA is the best friend a killer’s instinct ever had.”

More here.

The Checkpoint: Terror, Power, and Cruelty

Naaman_37.4_checkpointOded Na’aman in Boston Review:

One morning, when I was about four years old, I proudly announced from the back seat of my family’s car, “Mother, I want you to know that I am the first kid in my whole kindergarten to think inside my head rather than out loud.” The car slowed to a standstill as we waited for the light to change. My mother turned to me, smiled, and said softly, “How do you know you’re the first?”

I was speechless. With one brief question, she had made the world a stranger to me and made me a stranger in my own world. She unveiled a universe of goings-on, a whole new brand of human activity that everyone I knew—the friends I played with, my sisters, even my parents—was engaged in, which I could have no access to. I sat on the staircase that day in kindergarten, observing the other kids play. Using my recently acquired skill, I wondered silently, with unmistakable trepidation, “Who knows what they are thinking?”

I soon regained my trust and grew up believing in the people around me. I knew there were dangers, but I felt certain I was not alone and therefore not helpless in facing them.

Fourteen years after my big kindergarten discovery, I was conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). At the West Bank checkpoints, the terror of other minds took over again. It occupied my soul.

Masters of Surface: Roy Lichtenstein in Chicago, Mad Men on TV

Banana Republic Mad MenAnna-Claire Stinebring over at Critics at Large (Mad Men Collection by Banana Republic. Photograph by Tom Munro):

I found myself thinking of Mad Men: its popularity and all the mixed messages that go along with its good-looking façade. Mad Men, of course, is about advertising men in the 1960s. It explores but also glamorizes the world that produced the material for [Roy] Lichtenstein’s most famous paintings. The Mad Men full circle – from television show that allegedly tells us about another time to something we want in our own time – is exemplified by the simpering ad campaign that went along with the very successful Banana Republic Mad Men-inspired line.

What disquieted me about the image above is that it embraced the gender dynamic of the show’s world with a kind of visual shorthand (the confident man, studied by the adoring woman) as well as the style. Fashion is about taking on roles, it implies, and perhaps even misogyny is fun to try on for a little while. I’m relying here on Daniel Mendelsohn’s inspired take-down of the show in the New York Review of Books (Feb. 2011; after season 4), which also pinpoints why the show is so alluring. Watching stylish, emotionally stunted characters smoke and drink and torpedo their marriages, we get the double reward of living vicariously through them while feeling good that we are (surely) more enlightened. Mendelsohn goes on to say:

In its glossy, semaphoric style, its tendency to invoke rather than unravel this or that issue, the way it uses a certain visual allure to blind rather than to enlighten, Mad Men is much like a successful advertisement itself. And yet as we know, the best ads tap into deep currents of emotion. As much as I disliked the show, I did find myself persisting. Why?

Glossiness, “the tendency to invoke rather than unravel”: much of Mendelsohn’s description of Mad Men stands true for Lichtenstein’s oeuvre as well. Yet for me there can be a sense of foreboding and even nausea to Lichtenstein’s ad-inspired images. With the prominent use of a shade-towards-sickly yellow, this isn’t the feel-good world of advertising.

More Takes on The Dark Knight Rises

The-dark-knight-rises-teaser-poster1First, Aaron Bady in New Inquiry:

The Dark Knight Rises is not about Occupy Wall Street, even though it does have a five month anarchist occupation of New York City, which lasts into the winter until a huge phalanx of NYPD officers flood into lower Manhattan and pound the crap out of them. It is a movie that works very hard at not being about Occupy Wall Street, in fact: it fills the screen and narrative arc with all sorts of bells and whistles, bloating its running time way beyond necessity, and generally wearing you down with all sorts of things that are not Occupy Wall Street until you don’t notice anymore that it’s all the fuck about Occupy Wall Street. I mean, for fuck’s sake, Bane and a bunch of his goons literally Occupy Wall Street at one point, and then they lead a leaderless revolution of wealth redistribution and general assemblies, that they apparently hope will by example (mediated through mass media) be replicated across the country. I think Batman even subpoenas Malcolm Harris’ twitter feed at one point.

Via.This vacillation, ambivalence, even insistent disavowal is what seems to me to be, by far, the most interesting thing about the movie, and precisely the thing that so many “political” readings of it must almost bend over backwards to miss, as they struggle to claim it for various political persuasions. Take, for example, the honorable conservative Ross Douthat who tut-tutted yesterday — from his blog at the NY Times — against the “extraordinary overreactions from ideologically-inclined movie writers” like Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, who he quotes as arguing:

“It’s no exaggeration to say that the “Dark Knight” universe is fascistic (and I’m not name-calling or claiming that Nolan has Nazi sympathies). [It has a] vision of human history understood as a struggle between superior individual wills, a tale of symbolic heroism and sacrifice set against the hopeless corruption of society. Maybe it’s an oversimplification to say that that’s the purest form of the ideology that was bequeathed from Richard Wagner to Nietzsche to Adolf Hitler, but not by much.

Second, Henry Farrell in Crooked Timber:

I saw Batman: The Dark Knight Rises on Saturday (I was a little nervous about copycat shootings). It has some excellent set-pieces, but is not a great movie. If the standard is ‘better than The Godfather Part III,’ it passes muster, but by a rather narrower margin than one would like. It wants to be an oeuvre, saying serious things about politics and inequality, but doesn’t ever really get there. This Jacobin piece by Gavin Mueller argues that it’s not a pro-capitalist movie, but a pro-monarchist one. I think that’s wrong. It’s a pro-aristocratic movie, which isn’t really the same thing. Mueller’s observation that:

There is barely any evidence of “the people” at all – it’s all cops and mercenaries battling it out. So instead of a real insurrection, the takeover of Gotham functions via Baroque conspiracies among elites struggling for status and power.

is exactly right – but a movie about “elites struggling for status and power” without some master-figure, however capricious, who can grant or deny them recognition isn’t actually about monarchy. It’s about the struggle between the elites themselves.

Mueller has lots to say about the movie’s take on Occupy, inequality and so on, all of which is right. But even if The Dark Knight Rises didn’t have this explicit political message, its politics would still be creepy.

A Know-It-All’s Guide To Olympic Music

Tom Huizenga snarkily shares some interesting tid-bits on over a century of Olympic theme music in NPR's Deceptive Cadence:

Ceremony-OlympicsA little closer to our own time, don't forget about Czech composer Josef Suk, whose soul-stirring Toward a New Life was written for the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and won him a silver medal. Bonus points for interjecting, particularly among classical music pretenders, that Suk was the son-in-law of the great Czech composer Antonin Dvorak.

Philip Glass is hip in almost any context. The prolific and expeditious composer (who once worked as a cabbie and plumber) was tapped to write something for the torch lighting ceremony at the 1984 Los Angeles games. He came up with a five-minute piece called The Olympian (below), and later commented: “I can think of no event to compare with the Olympic Games which makes us so conscious of our shared humanity, our common fate.” Glass also composed music for the 2004 Greek Olympics. The overly ambitious Orion featured collaborations with seven other composers including Ravi Shankar and Gambian kora player Foday Musa Suso.

More here.

‘The Dark Knight’ is no capitalist

A brilliant piece by Gavin Mueller in Jacobin:

BatmanWayne has no interest in profit, in accumulation, in investing his wealth to produce more wealth. If you don’t see M-C-M’ you don’t have capitalism. Now, the character of Bruce Wayne has always been imbued with noblesse oblige, but let’s not get that confused with what a capitalist does. Wayne funds orphanages and renewable energy in distinction to the actual capitalist, Daggett, who is trying to pillage Wayne Enterprises, Bain-Capital-style. Daggett is pointedly dissed at a party full of rich people because he’s only interested in money. Those silly noveau-riche, so gauche, am I right?

…[T]his is a class struggle all right, but it’s not between Bane’s pseudo-proles and Gotham’s elite with their cop army. That’s a sideshow. The struggle is within the ruling class itself, between the capitalist Daggett and the aristocratic Wayne. Wayne is far more feudalism than finance: heir to a manor complete with fawning manservant, unconcerned with business or money-making, bound by duty and honor even if it makes him a recluse.

Meanwhile, Daggett represents the rapaciousness and self-destructiveness of unfettered acquisition, stooping to working with terrorists to edge out Wayne’s position on the board of directors. And so we’re presented with a choice, which like with so much ideology is a false one: be ruled by the chaotic profit motive who holds out empty promises of liberation, or by an unaccountable violent lord who nevertheless promises to look out for our best interests. Using the French Revolution for inspiration, the Nolans have restaged the question of bourgeois revolution, but in reverse. They want you to stand with the monarchists.

Here’s where the renewable energy plot comes in. Wayne invested heavily in fusion power, which was apparently successful. However, he shuttered the project at great personal cost because he was worried about it being weaponized. This is why we can’t have nice things, world! Your betters have constructed cheap, clean, renewable energy, but it could be turned into a weapon by evil people (Russians of course, those reliable tragic mullatoes of global cinema – so white and so good at science, yet so ethnically other that things always go badly). So Wayne mothballs it “to keep it out of the wrong hands.” He alone determines the fate of the realm – in the name of the people, of course – as he hobbles around his mansion.

Read the rest here.

The Astronaut Bride

From The New Yorker:

Sally-ride-465Five months after Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in outer space, she put on a white dress, with a puffy skirt and a veil, and married Andrian Nikolayev. The wedding was in November, 1963, in Moscow, and Nikita Khruschev was there; by some accounts, he had also pushed for marriage. Nikolayev was also a cosmonaut; to many people, it seemed romantic, and, more than that, like the logical destination for Tereshkova, a former factory worker who came to the space program by way of a parachuting club. Circle the world: land at the altar. She and Nikolayev had a daughter by the next summer, the first child on earth with two parents who’d left the planet. The marriage effectively fell apart soon afterward, although legally it lasted almost twenty years. As it happens, that was almost exactly the same interval as that between Tereshkova’s journey and that of Sally Ride, the first American woman (and third overall) in space, who died on Monday, at the age of sixty-one. Ride travelled on a space-shuttle mission in June, 1983. A few months earlier, about the same time as Tereshkova’s divorce, she, too, married a fellow astronaut, Steve Hawley, without any world leaders present. A brief story in the August 15, 1982, Times (“TWO ASTRONAUTS TELL FRIENDS OF THEIR MARRIAGE LAST MONTH”) included this line: “ ‘We didn’t want to make a big deal of it,’ Mrs. Hawley said. ‘We only told a few friends.’ ” Luckily, by the time she went into space, the Times had figured out that “Mrs. Hawley” was still Sally Ride.

And that is when she truly became Sally Ride—not just a scientist and athlete (she’d considered being a professional tennis player) but an icon. That meant more discussion of her personal life. A June 19, 1983, “Woman in the News” story in the Times said Ride and Hawley “were quietly married, making them the first astronauts to do so”—meaning, perhaps, the first Americans (or the first to do so quietly)—and that their house was “laced with mementos of the space age,” including “shuttle dishware.” Ride’s 1982 marriage is mentioned in her Times obituary, as is her divorce, in 1987. (The space decor comes up, too.) Then, at the end, there’s this: Dr. Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy; her mother, Joyce; and her sister, Ms. Scott, who is known as Bear. (Dr. O’Shaughnessy is chief operating officer of Dr. Ride’s company.) Bear Scott, Ride’s sister, and her company, Sally Ride Science, confirmed to reporters that no one should mistake “partner” for business partner: “We consider Tam a member of the family,” Bear Scott told BuzzFeed. She, too, is a lesbian (and a Presbyterian minister) but more open than her sister ever was. The listing of O’Shaughnessy as Ride’s partner was apparently the first time the relationship had been in the public record. Bear Ride talked about her sister’s “very fundamental sense of privacy.”

More here.

The Wisdom of Not Being Too Rational

From Science:

CrowMany children (and adults) have heard Aesop's fable about the crow and the pitcher. A thirsty crow comes across a pitcher partly filled with water but can't reach the water with his beak. So he keeps dropping pebbles into the pitcher until the water level rises high enough. A new study finds that both young children and members of the crow family are good at solving this problem, but children appear to learn it in a very different ways from birds.

Recent studies, particularly ones conducted by Nicola Clayton's experimental psychology group at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom have shown that members of the crow family are no birdbrains when it comes to cognitive abilities. They can make and use tools, plan for the future, and possibly even figure out what other birds are thinking, although that last claim is currently being debated. A few years ago, two members of Clayton's group showed that rooks can learn to drop stones into a water-filled tube to get at a worm floating on the surface. And last year, a team led by Clayton's graduate student Lucy Cheke reported similar experiments with Eurasian jays: Using three different experimental setups, Cheke and her colleagues found that the jays could solve the puzzle as long as the basic mechanism responsible for raising the water level was clear to the birds.

More here.

Thursday Poem

Questions by the Lake

When, after two years you returned to Solentiname,
pppppp already a child of five, Juan,
I remember very well what you said to me:
“You're the one who's going to tell me all about God, right?”
And I who all the time
pppppppppp have come to know less about God.
A mystic, that is, a lover of God
pppp called God NOTHING,
and another said: all that you say about God is false.
And if you were to have knowledge of God it was better
perhaps I didn't talk to you of God.
But once,
ppppppp I certainly spoke to you
of God by the lake,
on the dock,

ppppppp during a twilight all pink and silver:
“God is one who's within all of us,
within you, within me, within everywhere.”
“And God is within that heron?” “Yes.” “And within the
“Yes.” “And within those clouds?” “Yes.”
“And within that other heron?” “Yes.”
A tiny Adam naming all your small paradise.
“And God is within this dock?” “Yes.” “And within the waves?”
Why do children ask so many questions?
And I
pppppp why do I question why
pppppppppppppp like a child?
“And God is also within my dad and my mom?” “Yes, God is.”
And you told me:
ppppppp “But God doesn't get to the island of the bad ones,
Now, 12 years old,
you're in the Association of Sandinista Children.
You go to the rallies. You take part in voluntary work.
You take watch turns for the revolution. You're in the militia.
pppppp (Now the bad ones have left their island.)
“And God is also within the little stars
the tiny little stars that are so big, right?”
The numbers measuring littleness
pppppp are as large as those for bigness.
Where did you come from?
And I was shocked, not only by your questions
but also because I thought that
of three hundred million spermatazoids
pppppppppppppp it was only you, Juan,
of the three hundred million Juans
distinct from the Juan that you are
but twins of you
it was only you, once.
And like you
three hundred million asked me from their nonexistence
pppppppp where is God,
telling me I should tell them all about God,
ppppppp and if God is also within them?
(And with them the whole infinity of nonexistents
infinitely greater than the existent.)
As if all at once I were interrogated
by three hundred million stars that didn't exist.
Although among all those millions,
ppppppppppp within which God also is,
you were the only one, Juan,
the one who questioned me that day by the lake.
ppppppppppp The one who one day believed that I would tell
him all about God.

by Ernesto Cardenal
from Flights of Victory
translation: Marc Zimmerman
Orbis, 1985

A Saturday in Majdal Shams


The scenery heading north to Israel’s border with Syria in the Golan Heights is both dramatic and serene, with giant lopping trees hanging over winding roads that run through country rich with volcanic rock, leaving the land slate gray amid the green. Every few feet, though, your eye catches a warning sign that the hills are alive with landmines, in terrain that makes it hard for Israelis to clear them out. Unlike in the West Bank, which Israel occupied in the 1967 war but did not annex, there is no movement to settle the Golan with a significant number of Israelis, aside from the scattered villages, moshavim, kibbutzim, and industry that already dot the landscape. Additionally, there are 20,000 Druze who lived (or descended from those who lived) on the land when it belonged to Syria and who still consider themselves citizens of Syria today. The largest village, with half of the Golan’s Druze population, is Majdal Shams, at the foot of Mt. Hermon, Israel’s only ski resort.

more from Jo-Ann Mort at Dissent here.

euro disaster…


Europe is “sleepwalking towards disaster”, according to the 17 experts, who warned that over the past few weeks “the situation in the debtor countries has deteriorated dramatically”. “The sense of a neverending crisis, with one domino falling after another, must be reversed. The last domino, Spain, is days away from a liquidity crisis,” said the economists. They include two members of Germany’s Council of Economic Experts and leading euro specialists at the London of School of Economics, all euro supporters. “This dramatic situation is the result of a eurozone system which, as currently constructed, is thoroughly broken. The cause is a systemic failure. It is the responsibility of all European nations that were parties to its flawed design, construction and implementation to contribute to a solution. Absent this collective response, the euro will disintegrate,” they added in a co-signed report for the Institute for New Economic Thinking. The warning came as contagion from Spain pushed Italy’s borrowing costs to danger levels, with two-year yields rocketing 40 basis points to more than 5pc.

more from Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at The Telegraph here.

the disaster of sport


F or those who are dreading the next two weeks – for those for whom the last seven years, since the dramatic announcement of London’s appointment as the host city for the 2012 Olympic Games, have been a torment – the French academic Marc Perelman’s polemic could not be more perfect; an ideal accompaniment, perhaps, to a fortnight that might best be spent, for the naysayers, doubters and outright opponents, in an isolation tank. Not that Barbaric Sport confines its withering contempt to the Olympics – although it does, somewhat opportunistically, lead off with them; football also comes in for a drubbing and, although other forms of sport get comparatively passing mentions, it would be a perverse reader who put this book down feeling licensed to be a supporter of – well, anything. There are few evils that Perelman doesn’t lay at the door of competitive sport, which he carefully contrasts with (and, indeed, blames for depriving us of) play, “a disinterested activity without material goals, ludic and free”.

more from Alex Clark at the TLS here.

Zombie Nouns

Helen Sword in NYTimes' Opinionator:

ZombienounsTake an adjective (implacable) or a verb (calibrate) or even another noun (crony) and add a suffix like ity, tion or ism. You’ve created a new noun: implacability, calibration, cronyism. Sounds impressive, right?

Nouns formed from other parts of speech are called nominalizations. Academics love them; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings:

The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.

The sentence above contains no fewer than seven nominalizations, each formed from a verb or an adjective. Yet it fails to tell us who is doing what.

More here.

“Slave genes” myth must die

Amy Bass in Salon:

Slave genesIn 1988, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder (in)famously stated that the prowess of African-American football players could be traced to slavery, saying “the black is a better athlete to begin with because he’s been bred to be that way … [They] jump higher and run faster.” The reaction to such obviously racist remarks was fast and furious: Amid the uproar, CBS Sports fired him. So when Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson predicted this month that African-American and West Indian track athletes would dominate the London Olympics because of the genes of their slave ancestors, I paid little attention, thinking there was no way this could become a viable conversation yet again. “All my life I believed I became an athlete through my own determination, but it’s impossible to think that being descended from slaves hasn’t left an imprint through the generations,” Johnson told the Daily Mail. “Difficult as it was to hear, slavery has benefited descendants like me –- I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us.”

As a historian, what I find to be stunning about what he said is the claim that the supremacy of black athletes in track had never “been discussed openly before.” Actually, with his words, Johnson plunged himself into a century-old debate that seems to rear its (rather ugly) head every four years, just in time for the opening of sport’s largest global stage. Johnson supported his theory with the example of the men’s 100m final at the Beijing Olympics: Three of the eight finalists came from Jamaica, including record-breaking winner Usain Bolt, and two from Trinidad; African-Americans Walter Dix and Doc Patton and Dutch sprinter Churandy Martina, who hails from Curacao, rounded out the line.

Read the rest here.

Dinner: Impossible

1343175293Amy Finnerty on Jenny Rosenstrach's Dinner: A Love Story, over at the Los Angeles Review of Books:

FOR WORKING PARENTS, even those who are gifted, intuitive cooks, getting a wholesome dinner on the table regularly is a heavy lift, what with the shopping, the dirty dishes and recycling, the lactose intolerance and high cholesterol to be mitigated, not to mention the perils of Big Corn looming over them. Even more acutely, they feel a relentless time squeeze. Family dinner is a middle-class, first-world challenge, to be sure, but it’s a pervasive one that deserves a full-length book. With great facility and charm, Jenny Rosenstrach’s Dinner: A Love Story, based her popular blog of the same name, recounts the author’s progression from self-doubt to mastery, both at work and at home.

For many members of Rosenstrach’s demographic, who came of age with the assumption that they’d become high-powered professionals (or at least writers), homemaking skills were anathema. Domestic training was retrograde and sexist and took time away from academic striving. Rosenstrach learned much of what she knows about the kitchen not as a girl but in the workplace, as an editor at Real Simple and Cookie, and through trial and error in her own kitchen. She provides members of her cohort not just with a how-to book but, more importantly, with a central philosophical text.

Rosenstrach’s big idea is that once dinner is solved, the more profound concerns of family life will coalesce around it: Conversation, shared responsibility, pleasure, and health, she argues, can all be fostered at the table. “The simple act of carving out the ritual – a delicious homemade ritual,” she writes — has given “every day purpose and meaning, no matter what else was going on in our lives.” The book, which, like the blog, has a work-in-progress, vérité aura, is a working mother’s manifesto with crowd-pleasing dishes, family recipes, and domestic solutions scattered among reflections on parenting, the cocktail hour, marriage, and careers.