A Personal History of Afghanistan in Seven Acts


Sunday nights are for tango at the Canadians’. Embassy staffers come wearing wing-tip shoes—improbably clean, despite the mud-sodden streets of Kabul. Humanitarian aid workers, the toughest of tribes, are here too. An air of fatigue clings to them. One evening, an American woman who used to tango in New York shows up, and we note that her embrace is far tighter than anything we are accustomed to. An Afghan who runs a logistics company is a regular. So is a German doctor who runs a children’s hospital. Female officers with the EU police mission come bearing delicate-sounding names like Elise and Marianna. When the dance class adjourns, these women put on their flak jackets to walk the twelve paces from the compound gate to their armored SUVs. Someone tells me it’s an insurance policy mandate. Members of the Australian close protection team (bodyguards for diplomats), whom I’ve heard referred to as “eye candy,” are also present. They are never short of willing women.

more from May Jeong at n+1 here.

Fate’s only gift is death


Death and fashion are sisters, though not everyone knows this. They have known periods of estrangement, but these have been without cause, for they share not only a mother but a calling. It is with these family matters that Giacomo Leopardi begins his “Dialogue Between Fashion and Death,” written in 1824, when Leopardi was twenty-six years old, and published in a book he titled Operette morali (which is normally rendered in English as Essays and Dialogues, but whose title means “diminutive moral works”). The book does not offer a bright view of existence. Its last lines (spoiler alert) are: “If I were offered, on the one hand, the fortune and fame of Caesar or of Alexander, pure of all stains, and, on the other, to die today, and if I were to make a choice, I would say, to die today, and I would not need time to think it over.” But on to brighter matters—like fashion. As the reader of the dialogue will have noted, Fashion has sought out her sister to remind her of a few things (Death has a poor memory). Fashion begins with the bright side of death, that it “continually renews the world,” and argues that this renewal is a part of their shared calling.

more from Leland de la Durantaye at Cabinet here.

the Randolphs


In Virginia, legends offered themselves up for our affiliation. We were allowed to imagine ourselves against their tableaux. My aunt arranged private tours of Tuckahoe Plantation, Jefferson’s childhood home. We learned about the scandal at a plantation called Bizarre, in which one sad Randolph woman, in a tragic turn, was accused of murdering a child who had been conceived out of wedlock. Only later would I learn that the rumor of the time had been that the child had been conceived with one of the enslaved members of the household. Her family valiantly tried to protect her (and themselves) from shame. Patrick Henry successfully defended her in a proceeding that had been the days’ equivalent of the O. J. Simpson trial, and about which books are still occasionally published by small Virginia presses. As for Jefferson: How could I help but like him? A portrait of Monticello hung on the guest-​bedroom wall. Jefferson’s signature pin glinted above the fireplace. How beautiful his books were, full of gardens, science, democracy. My first visit to Monticello was a private tour. We strolled past Jefferson’s bed nook, his cluttered desk. I remember his micrometer, clock, telescopes.

more from Tess Taylor at VQR here.

Tuesday Poem

My grandmother on my father’s side
My grandmother on my father’s side had a favorite saying.
Live for the moment is what she said.
So I lived for the moment.

One of my uncles had a favorite saying.
Live by the moment is what he said.
So I lived by the moment.

A zen master in a book I read had a favorite saying.
Live as the moment is what he said.
So I lived as the moment.

A zen master in another book I read had a favorite saying.
Live with the moment is what he said.
So I lived with the moment.

My friend Jeff has a favorite saying.
Live without prepositions is what he says.
So I live moments. So moments are what I live.

by J.R. Solonche
from Gravel, 2013

Reza Aslan Knew Exactly What He Was Doing in That Fox News Interview

From Slate:

Zealot-coverBy now, you've no doubt watched the video and seen the headlines: On Friday, Fox News' Lauren Green aggressively questioned religious scholar Reza Aslan over why he, a Muslim, would choose to write a book about Jesus Christ. During the length of the increasingly absurd 10-minute segment, that implied criticism quickly became direct with Green accusing the author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth of being incapable of providing an unbiased academic account because of his faith, and even wrongly claiming that Aslan had gone to great lengths to hide the fact he is Muslim. The Internet's response was not kind. BuzzFeed, one of the first to spot the clip, spoke for the masses: “Is This The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?” Andrew Kaczynski asked in a headline that needed no answer. The interview was “absolutely demented,” said New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum. “This may just be the single most cringe-worthy, embarrassing interview” in Fox News history, wrote my colleague Daniel Politi.

Green's almost blindingly illogical and offensive line of questioning, though, seems to have obscured the fact that Aslan appears to have arrived ready to do battle. This wasn't a case of an academic being blindsided by a TV anchor. If anything, it was Aslan who had the upper hand at the outset. The day before the interview, FoxNews.com had published pastor John S. Dickerson's screed accusing the mainstream media of helping Aslan hide the fact that he is Muslim. Shortly after, a series of one-star reviews began to appear on Zealot's Amazon page. Aslan had heard the criticism and came ready to smack it down. And—thankfully!—he did.

More here.

Philosophy and Humor

by Gerald Dworkin


There is a story about the philosopher Nuel Belnap who collapsed in his classroom. After a period of time, having recovered, he returned to the classroom and began “As I was saying…” It has been several years since my last blog. My absence is partly due to my having had heart surgery and partly due to trying to finish several philosophical projects. Since both were successful, I return to the fold.

Readers with a long memory will remember two pieces Short Takes and More (and longer) Short Takes. They were excerpts from a commonplace book on philosophical humor– and lots of short, serious stuff– that I had been collecting for many years. One of my projects was to finish (or rather just stop collecting) this book. It now has been published as an e-book on Amazon and other sites. It is called Philosophy: A Commonplace Book.

A few weeks after the book came out, and with no causal relation, a post on the website Reddit called “What’s the most intellectual joke you know?” went viral. Since intellectual does not equate to philosophical, the majority of the jokes are of the “a mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer” type. But there are some good philosophical ones as well.

“Is it getting solipsistic in here, or is it just me?”

“I’m a linguist. So I like ambiguity more than most people.”

“According to Freud, what comes between fear and sex? Fünf.”

“This sentence contains exactly threee erors.”

“Every word in this sentence is a gross misspelling of the word “tomato.” –Doug Hofstadter”

Read more »

Enchantment and the Nine Bronze Tripods 九鼎

by Leanne Ogasawara

Nine tripods

From Xia to Shang
And from Shang to Zhou….

You know the story: Nine bronze tripods– cast back in the mists of great antiquity– were treasured by ancient Chinese Kings as a symbol of their right to rule.

Passed down from dynasty to dynasty– for nearly 2,000 years (or so the story goes) until the time when the First Emperor, Shihuangdi, finally toppled the last Zhou King– and rather than see their transfer to Shihuangdi’s new dynasty– the last Chu King flung the nine bronzes forever into the River Si

(English wikipedia suggests it was the Qin king; Japanese wikipedia has it as the Qin king who did the flinging).

Given their symbolic significance, Shihuangdi actively attempted to dredge up the sacred bronzes from the river, but it was to no avail; and scholars of later dynasties saw this as further evidence of the lack of moral virtue of the First Emperor.

There is a well known story about these matters, which supposedly took place at the start of the Eastern Zhou Period (770-256 BC). Severely weakened by external and internal threats, the Zhou kings came to rule in name only. Although the Zhou dynasty was the acknowledged recipient of the Mandate of Heaven and therefore possessor of the Nine Tripods, the real political power was held by the kings and generals of various surrounding kingdoms, chiefly those of the Qin, Qi, Chu, Wei and Yan.

The Chu were especially troublesome, and after some showy military displays near the Zhou capital of Luoyang, the worried Zhou king dispatched his trusty Minister, Wáng-sūn Mǎn (王孫満), to negotiate for peaceful relations with their southern Chu neighbors.

Arriving at the military camp outside the capital, the belligerent Lord of Chu immediately asked Minister Wang about the size and weight of the Nine Tripods (問鼎之輕重)– thereby implying that with their transfer to the House of Chu, the Mandate of Heaven would also be transferred to Chu.

Minister Wang–always quick of wit– sharply responded that unless it could be shown that the Will of Heaven had in fact changed, then it was forbidden to inquire after the weight of the tripods. He then went on to explain that the actual weight of the tripods was beside the point–for in fact, their weight corresponded directly to the virtue of the king who had them in his possession; that is, if the ruler truly held the Mandate of Heaven then the tripods would be immovably heavy. However, should a ruler lack virtue, the tripods would become weightless and therefore meaningless as a political and psychological symbol.

He then drove in his point: The tripods do not matter, virtue does.

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Monday Poem

That's It

I’d mowed and cut and weeded
tips of fingers inked with earth

I’d heard our cardinal calling
I’d heard our engines down the valley groaning
coming up, distant, moaning

hands between dry stems of garlic moving,
like my mother kneeling, devout, but not in church

I’d yanked contentious weeds, insisting,
grabbing, pulling —this was how I worked:
so much sweat I wore a perspiration shirt

I’d quit and picked my tools up:
shovel rake— and shut the hose off
at the door I took my boots off
smacked them sole to sole to knock the mud off
and turned to see your garden blazing
with inner light in daylight failing
I cracked a beer and sat— amazing!

I watched your garden’s still fires burning
it’s orange lilies burning
its incandescent red & purple gladiolus burning
its spiky flush of bee balm burning
rose campion bursting in the burning
sparking coral bell and yellow lupine burning
moonbeam coreopsis burning

all in all on still all, all lit
until the mountain’s shadow eased the fire’s edge off
as petal embers in its dying spit
as if some hand had turned a dimmer of the sun
to gently cauterized the done
to douse the blaze
to ease the day off
to say, that's it

by Jim Culleny
from Blink

Masterpieces: Antonioni’s L’Avventura

by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash

VittiThe first time they saw Antonioni's L'Avventura, the cineastes at Cannes were as upset as a welter of wildebeests thrown down a well.

Maybe it was just too new for them. Or too great. Or so different from the products of the Hollywood crap factory as to seem inexplicable.

It may have been because Antonioni introduced a different sense of time into the movies. Ever since Griffith, film language had been of the “move-along” sort: next, next, next. The cut was there to zip time forward. Antonioni slowed movie time down to living time … now … now … now. He made the moment momentous; portentous. We get to stare at faces and things. The nows follow one another at a measured human rhythm; conversations happen at human speed. Antonioni exposed the falseness of movie time and graced film with a more authentically human pace and rhythm. He may be said to have brought the languid expansiveness of the novel to the screen (at 145 minutes, L'Avventura is a long movie). There's a certain respect for what's on view. We get a chance to take in people's faces.

And what a face we have in Monica Vitti. I don't think L'Avventura would've been half the masterpiece it is without Monica Vitti's face. Some directors — Antonioni, Bergman, Godard — parade their female stars as objects of loving regard. Their actresses are, in fact, their lovers, and they make images of them worthy of their love. If you love a woman, your camera will romance her, and express your lust for her. And when you have a face like Monica Vitti, there is an arresting loveliness that makes for many images of almost painful ecstasy.

Antonioni also treated space differently. All his people were judiciously and precisely placed in space, with a deep focus leaving not a iota of object or place out of focus. The background is foreground and vice versa. The entire frame is to be paid attention to, whether an actor is in closeup or in long shot. Antonioni's camera either burrows in, or stands way back, and gathers the whole view to be viewed in its ambit. A democratic eye.

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Walking Past the White House: Andrew Jackson and the Deadness of Generals.

by Maniza Naqvi

StatueofAndewJacksonEvery morning on my way to work, I walk past dead Washingtonians. High and mighty on their pedestals: My morning route has me heading towards the backs of statues of dead men on dead horses—spurs, and swords and boots and saddles. Cast in iron, the backs of dead Generals and horses asses, as if leading a charge towards the White House. Major General John A. Logan in the middle of Logan Circle which is now mainly a dog park for pampered pets to be brought out to poop here; Major General George Henry Thomas in the middle of Thomas Circle again a location for pooping pooches and then Major General James B. McPherson in the middle of McPherson Square the location of the memory of the evicted Occupy Movement's Washington chapter and a perennial home to mainly homeless veterans.

Further on just before the White House, I pass the Ministry of War—- rather, the Department of War Veterans and I enter into the peaceful tree lined beauty of a garden. This is Lafayette Park just outside the White House. Here too, there are more statues—not of artists or poets or writers or singers, nor of doctors, teachers, lawyers, laborers, railway engineers no—not even of Bankers. No, this variety just passes through here, or comes to click their cameras or hold up protest signs. No, here, the statues are of still more Generals posed with plenty of weapons: Brigadier General (US) Thaddeus Kosciuszko at the northeast corner of Lafayette Park, the inscription on his monument, shriek worthy in itself reads, “Freedom shrieked when he fell.” Major General (US) Marquis de Lafayette's statue sits atop a pedestal on the South east corner, Major General (US) Wilhelm von Steuben's on the Northwest corner and General Comte de Rochambeau's at the Southwest corner.

In Lafayette Park and centered right across from the White House's front entrance door lives the statue of Andrew Jackson. The seventh President of the United States who had also been a General. One morning as I passed by, I came across the typical crowd of high school students with their teacher staring up at the statue of Andrew Jackson depicted seated on a horse whose forelegs are up in the air. From the quick passing glances at the statue each day, I had the impression that Jackson was looking towards the White House tipping his hat, the whole posture that of a rakish blackguard taking leave of his mistress. When I was the age of these school children, I had a crush on Andrew Jackson—a portrait of him, in my history text book, depicted him as having a high forehead, beautiful swept back mane of hair wearing a long leather coat and high riding boots, a scar in battle or a barroom fight and a little story about scandals including a duel over a mistress. Well that did me in. Now these school children gathered at the base of the statue looked up at him as their teacher asked them if they knew whose statue this was. As I continued on my way I heard her say—”That's right, Andrew Jackson.” The kids evidently literate, were able to read the plaque, “He was a war hero—a General before he was President of the United States.” She repeated, it “He was a war hero before he was President.” This was the lesson that she was teaching these young minds. I grimaced and glanced towards the White House as I hurried on towards my office. For me he is Andrew Jackson, the good looking President, the dueling, whoring, swashbuckling, tall, high forehead long haired, long leather coat, boots with spurs President who I had a crush on when I was just a child and reading up on American history.

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Hey, Rick Perry, I am woman, hear me roar

by Sarah Firisen

As a woman, I know so much pain Sneaker
Not the least pre-menstrual weight gain
Menopause is no fun
Birthing pain can quite stun
And we do it and rarely complain

Men get to glide right through life
A failed erection the worst of their strife
We have the right to refuse
But they still get to choose
When it's time to be husband and wife

Men get paid more, the ceiling's still glass
I'm still judged on the size of my ass
My gray hair is old
They're distinguished they're told
And they're still the world's governing class

But through all this we just grin and bear
Even though lots in life don't compare
But enough is enough
Men, we women don't bluff
What is broken it's time to repair

The control of my body is mine
Not yours or some being divine
Some graying white men
Just won't tell me when
My uterus is no longer mine

So back off, Wendy Davis was right
Should we all filibuster all night?
Now what will it take
For all women to wake
And to finally take on this fight?

For the women of Texas to say
“Rick Perry get out of my way”
It's not your choice, it's mine
And I'll make it just fine
We're all done with this male power play

It’s All About the Benjamins: Grappling with Fears of Inflation

by Akim Reinhardt

BankerI belong to a credit union. It's been fifteen years since I kept my money in a for-profit bank.

Nearly one-third of Americans also belong to credit unions, and for most of us, the reason is obvious: for-profit banks suck. They nickle-and-dime you to death, looking for any excuse to charge fees. And that makes perfect sense. After all, banks aren't designed to do you any favors. They're designed to make money off of your money.

Credit unions, however, are non-profit cooperatives. So they're not out to fuck ya. People who keep money with them are shareholders, not targets of exploitation. And when a credit union does charge fees, the reason and amount always seem sensible, to me at least. So not only do I keep my money in a credit union, I also took a home mortgage with one and run my credit card through one.

The financial meltdown of 2008 only reinforced my decision to avoid for-profit banks at all costs. As profiteering financial institutions hit the skids, and were either bailed out with public money or put down altogether, the credit union industry was relatively unscathed by comparison. Reasonable regulations and responsible banking practices ensured that most credit unions never gambled away their shareholders' money.

In fact, no retail (a.k.a. consumer or natural person) credit union, the kind that operates like a bank for regular people, has ever been bailed out with taxpayer money. Ever. Furthermore, compared to banks, only a fraction of retail credit unions went under, although it should be noted that the financial meltdown did substantially damage the wholesale (a.k.a. corporate or central) credit union industry, which offers investments and services to the retail credit unions, not their patrons.

Fewer fees and peace of mind are nice perks, to be sure. However, there are certain disadvantages. One inconvenience that plagued me for several years has to do with the relatively sparse physical presence of credit unions, compared to the monstrous for-profit banks that loom large on the landscape; it seems you can't spit without hitting one of the latter, while the former is far less ubiquitous.

With fewer branches and outlets, credit unions can't offer nearly as many automated tell machines as do the big boys. Of course the credit union would never charge me for using someone else's ATM. Again, they're not looking for excuses to screw me over. But the non-credit union ATMs that I did occasionally use invariably charged me for using their machine.

So to avoid fees, I had to take care to make withdrawals only from the relatively few credit union ATMs, none of which were near my home. Either that, or I had to suck it up and pay the piper.

Fortunately, my credit union came up with a solution. They cut a deal with 7-11. As a result, I can withdraw money with my credit union ATM card at any of their stores and pay no fees. And it just so happens that there are two 7-11s within a few blocks from my home.
Read more »

Sexy spring: How group sex will liberate Iran, China


Katherine Frank talks to anthropologist Pardis Mahdavi on changing sexual mores in Iran and China and what it means for politics, in Salon:

[T]he new sexual culture in Iran, Mahdavi believes, is not simply an embrace of Western consumerism and morality nor merely an escapist hedonism, a “last resort.” Urban young adults, the focus of Mahdavi’s inquiry, made up about two-thirds of Iran’s population; they were mobile, highly educated, underemployed, and dissatisfied with the political regime at the time. Some were directly involved in politics. Many used the Internet to make connections, blog about their frustrations, and peer into youth cultures elsewhere around the world. Willingly taking risks with their social and sexual behavior, as these Iranian young people were doing, was viewed as a step toward social and political reform—not just a means of escape and excitement. After all, the consequences of partying in Tehran were different from in Los Angeles, despite similarities in flashy dress, electronic music, and group sex. Iranian youth had “restricted access to social freedoms, education, and resources (such as contraceptives or other harm-reduction materials)” that might minimize the risk of some of their behaviors. If caught, the punishments many young people would receive from their parents would likely be harsh. The punishments meted out by the morality police could be harsher. If caught drinking, for example, youth could be detained and sentenced to up to seventy lashes. Premarital sex could be punished by imprisonment and lashings; unmarried men and women caught in a car together could receive up to eighty-four lashings each. Although physical punishment has decreased in recent years, Mahdavi notes, young people are still detained and harassed by the morality police.

Yet stories of being apprehended and arrested by the morality police were sometimes told with pride; occasionally, even parents were pleased that their children stood up for their beliefs. Some young adults courted run-ins with the morality police in the name of activism, boredom, or both. One couple caught having sex at a party were arrested and forced to marry. When Mahdavi talked with the twenty-two-year old woman involved, the woman explained that she and her new husband were trying to annul the marriage. Despite her ruined reputation, however, the young woman mused that her experience was “almost worth it”: “The sex was great, and the excitement and adventure of doing what we know we aren’t supposed to be doing, then being caught! Well, and it makes a great story.”

Mahdavi’s informants claimed that they were living the social and sexual changes they desired, reminding her that their “revolution was not about momentary acts” but was “a way of life.” This way of life included social gatherings and behavior that “could be viewed as hedonistic” but were also “a necessary part of constructing a world over which they had control, a world they could live in rather than in the world of the Islamists, who would have them stay home and obey.”