The complicated legacy of the anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer

SkApIUyJames Nuechterlein at The New Criterion:

The matter of the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is at once straightforward and immensely complicated. About the man there is no question. Whatever Bonhoeffer’s flaws—and Charles Marsh’s masterly and comprehensive new biography Strange Glory reveals that there were more than is commonly supposed—the witness of his breathtakingly courageous opposition to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich leaves criticism disarmed.1 In the one great challenge of his life, he was magnificent. He behaved the way that the rest of us, in our most hopeful moments, like to imagine we would.

But Bonhoeffer is known to history not simply as a victim of Nazi horror but as a theologian of note. His appeal is startlingly ecumenical: He finds adherents across the Christian spectrum from conservative evangelicals to Lutherans (of various stripes) to liberal Protestants to celebrants of the death of God. Bonhoeffer himself was sympathetic to Catholicism—Karl Barth worried about his “nostalgia for Rome”—and he even came to insist, in Marsh’s words, on “equivalence before God of the church and the synagogue, between the body of Christ and the chosen people of Israel.”

But from such extravagant pluralism, can there be any coherence?

more here.

on dangerous images

PerilousAesthetics_FallingManBarrett Swanson at The Point:

The first photo: a fireman, a woman, and a child wait on the top-floor landing of a fire escape. Smoke purls from the windows behind them. As the gallant-eyed fireman reaches for the approaching rescue ladder, the woman and girl hug one another, their faces wounded by fear. In the second photograph, the fire escape has buckled and detached from the building. The fireman dangles from the ladder while the woman clutches onto his legs, in the postural arrangement of trapeze swingers. The little girl is not anywhere in view. We see in the third photo that the fireman is safely on the ladder, but the woman and little girl are floating, halfway into their fall, arms and legs gravity-splayed. The woman’s expression is eerily serene, as if already resigned to her fate. The final photograph (above) shows the woman and girl suspended in mid-air, like Degas ballerinas; the girl faces the camera with her arms outstretched, her pajama bottoms inflated with the wind of her fall. The woman plummets headfirst, a hideous, limb-tangled descent into oblivion. The woman, a nineteen-year-old named Diana Bryant, died on impact, but her two-year-old goddaughter, Tiare Jones, landed on Bryant’s body and lived.

Originally published in 1975 in the Boston Herald and taken by Stanley Forman, who thought he was merely documenting some gawk-worthy scenes from a heroic rescue, the photographs are so expertly composed and nakedly harrowing that they resemble film stills from a Hollywood blockbuster. And despite its disquieting content, Forman’s work, known simply as “Fire Escape Collapse,” was reprinted in over four hundred U.S. newspapers.

more here.

Thackeray Gets Grotesque

14765029121_fa04e2201f_oDan Piepenbring at the Paris Review:

When William Makepeace Thackeray died, near the end of 1863, he left behind a formidable library in a mansion he’d only recently designed, erected, and occupied. A few months later, his home was dismantled and his books were put to auction. On the flyleaves and margins, their new owners discovered a wealth of Thackeray’s sketches, some in pencil and others in pen and ink.

Thackeray’s talents as an artist were no secret—he’d contributed illustrations to many of his own novels, including Vanity Fair—but few were aware of the extent of his doodling habit. More than ten years later, in 1875, the art collector Joseph Grego published Thackerayana, an assemblage of more than six hundred of Thackeray’s drawings with extracts of the books in which he’d drawn them. (Grego, perhaps fearing the consequences of his blatant copyright infringement, presented the collection anonymously.)

What surprises most about the sketches in Thackerayana is their range—Thackeray was an adept caricaturist, but these drawings find him equally at home in more high-flown styles.

more here.

The impossible glamour of Istanbul

Jeremyy Seal in The Telegraph:

IstanbulIt’s no surprise that imperial splendour should so often have been the keynote in published histories of Istanbul, for more than 1,500 years the glittering capital of the Byzantines and latterly that of the Ottomans. But this book tells of the unfamiliar interwar period, perhaps the most humbling era for the world’s one-time greatest metropolis, which necessarily makes it shorter on gilt and glory than it is on pawnshops, penury and the stench of stale wine. It’s a counter-intuitive approach, but one that succeeds brilliantly in portraying the eclipsed city and its often exotic cast of the destitute, the dispossessed and the defiant – prostituted Russian princesses, scheming spies, out-of-work artists, impresarios and arms dealers as well as familiar figures like Leon Trotsky, Kemal Ataturk and Turkey’s national poet Nazim Hikmet – at a time of unparalleled social upheaval. With the Turks’ defeat in the First World War, Allied forces occupied Istanbul, intent on divvying up the lands of the Ottoman Empire; and though Ataturk’s nationalists were to drive the Greeks out of Anatolia and recover the city on the Bosphorus from the Allies in 1923, they wasted no time in instead making Ankara the capital of the newly proclaimed Turkish Republic.

But with the backwaters beckoning, belittled Istanbul had already embarked on perhaps the most compelling and affecting period in all its long history, one that was especially shaped by the flight to Istanbul of some 185,000 White Russian soldiers, aristocrats and assorted camp followers. In this vivid narrative’s many tangled threads – war and occupation, displacement, espionage, radical social reform, the nationalists’ persecution of the city’s minorities, the women’s movement, the remarkable blossoming of the city’s jazz age – it’s the human detail that always impresses.

More here.

Magic May Lurk Inside Us All

C. Nathan DeWall in The New York Times:

MagicWe do grow up. We get jobs. We have children of our own. Along the way, we lose our tendencies toward magical thinking. Or at least we think we do. Several streams of research in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy are converging on an uncomfortable truth: We’re more susceptible to magical thinking than we’d like to admit. Consider the quandary facing college students in a clever demonstration of magical thinking. An experimenter hands you several darts and instructs you to throw them at different pictures. Some depict likable objects (for example, a baby), others are neutral (for example, a face-shaped circle). Would your performance differ if you lobbed darts at a baby? It would. Performance plummeted when people threw the darts at the baby. Laura A. King, the psychologist at the University of Missouri who led this investigation, notes that research participants have a “baseless concern that a picture of an object shares an essential relationship with the object itself.”

Paul Rozin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that these studies demonstrate the magical law of similarity. Our minds subconsciously associate an image with an object. When something happens to the image, we experience a gut-level intuition that the object has changed as well. Put yourself in the place of those poor college students. What would it feel like to take aim at the baby, seeking to impale it through its bright blue eye? We can skewer a picture of a baby face. We can stab a voodoo doll. Even as our conscious minds know we caused no harm, our primitive reaction thinks we tempted fate.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Hattie MacDaniels Arrives at the Coconut Grove

late, in aqua and ermine, gardenias
scaling her left sleeve in a spasm of scent,
her gloves white, her smile chastened, purse giddy
with stars and rhinestones clipped to her brilliantined hair
on her free arm that fine Negro,
Mr. Wonderful Smith.

It’s the day that isn’t, February 29th,
at the end of the shortest month of the year-
and the sh*****st, too, everywhere
except Hollywood, California,
where the maid can wear mink and still be a maid,
bobbing her bandaged head and cursing
the white folks under her breath as she smiles
and shoos their silly daughters
in from the night dew … what can she be
thinking of, striding into the ballroom
where no black face has ever showed itself
except above a serving tray?

Hi-Hat-Hattie, Mama Mac, Her Haughtiness,
The “little lady” from Showboat whose name
Bing forgot, Beulah & Bertha & Malena
& Carrie & Violet & Cynthia & Fidelia,
one half of the Dark Barrymores —
dear Mammy we can’t help but hug you crawl into
your generous lap tease you
with arch innuendo so we can feel that
much more wicked and youthful
and sleek but oh what

we forgot: the four husbands, the phantom
pregnancy, your famous parties, your celebrated
ice box cake. Your giggle above the red petticoat’s rustle
black girl and white girl walking hand in hand
down the railroad tracks
in Kansas City, six years old.
The man advised you, now
that you were famous, to “begin eliminating”
your more “common” acquaintances
and your reply (catching him square
in the eye): “That’s a good idea.
I’ll start right now by eliminating you.”

Is she or isn’t she? Three million dishes,
a truckload of aprons and headrags later, and here
you are: poised, between husbands
and factions, no corset wide enough
to hold you in, your huge face a dark moon split
by that spontaneous smile — your trademark,
your curse. No matter, Hattie: It’s a long beautiful walk
into that flower-smothered standing ovation,
so go on
and make them wait.

by Rita Dove
from The Poetry Archive

Hear Rita Dove read this poem here.

Pidgin, Patois, Slang, Dialect, Creole


Public Radio International interviews the novelist M. NourbeSe Philip, and Dohra Ahmad, author of Rotten English, on literatures in the vernacular. Also at the website, you listen to readings of David Copperfield in Jamaican patois, Spanglish, Hawaiian pidgin, Trinadadian and Tobgan vernacular, and standard English. (image Credit: id-iom):

There are probably as many terms for different kinds of English vernacular as there are vernaculars themselves: pidgin, patois, slang, creole dialect and so on.

But while we usually think of the vernaculars as oral versions of the English language, they're making their way into the written word as well.

“There's a really interesting paradox going on, where you're taking something that's constantly changing — and that people don't expect to see written down — and you're making it codified and setting it down for a wider audience,” says Dohra Ahmad, editor of an anthology of vernacular literature called “Rotten English.”

M. NourbeSe Philip, one of the authors included in the anthology, speaks and writes Trinidadian Creole but points out that the process of getting the language on the page is much the same as writing in Standard English.

“You can’t write it exactly as the person speaks it,” she says. “You have to put it through a certain process that conveys the impression that it is being said in the dialect.”

She writes both in dialect and in standard English, with her characters switching back and forth between the Englishes.

“As people from the Caribbean, we inhabit a spectrum of language, and you actually hear it when you go into the cultures,” Philp says. “You can hear somebody code-switching. You might start off saying something in Standard English and midway switch into the dialect or the vernacular.”

More here. See my essay on Rotten English and literature in the vernacular here.

How the “culture of assessment” fuels academic dishonesty

by Emrys Westacott

According to a number of studies done over several years, cheating is rife in US high schools and colleges. More than 60% of students report having cheated at least once, and it is quite likely that findings based on self-reporting understate rather than overstate the incidence of cheating.[1] IMG_4843Understandably, most educators view this as a serious problem. At the college where I work, the issue has been discussed at length in faculty meetings, and policies have been carefully crafted to try to discourage academic dishonesty. But in my experience these discussions are overly self-righteous and insufficiently self-critical. We hear the phrase “academic dishonesty” and we immediately whistle for our moral high horse. But too much moralistic tongue-clicking can blind us to the ways in which we who constitute the system contribute to the very malady we lament. For if academic dishonesty is like a disease—and we repeatedly hear it described as an “epidemic”—we may all be carriers, even cultivators, of the virus that causes it. Let me explain.

Socrates sought to understand the essence of a thing by asking what all instances of it have in common. This approach is open to well-known objections, but it can have its uses. In the present case, for example, I think it leads to the following important observation: all instances of academic dishonesty are attempts to appear cleverer, more knowledgeable, more skillful, or more industrious than one really is. Buying or copying a term paper, plagiarizing from the Internet, using a crib sheet on an exam, accessing external assistance from beyond the exam room by means of a cell phone, fabricating a lab report, having another student sign one's name on an attendance sheet—all such practices serve this same purpose. The goal is to produce an appearance that is more impressive than the reality.

So far, so obvious, you might say. But what is not so obvious—and this is a key point in the argument I am making—is that this same prioritizing of appearance over reality permeates much of our education system. It is endorsed by parents, teachers, and administrators, and it is encouraged by many of our well-intentioned pedagogical practices. Students absorb this ordering of values over many years, especially in high school; so by the time they reach college they have been marinating in the toxin for a long time. Here are some examples of what I mean.

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Reality is down the hall

by Charlie Huenemann

Matrix-Hallway-1“It is therefore worth noting,” Schopenhauer writes, “and indeed wonderful to see, how man, besides his life in the concrete, always lives a second life in the abstract.” I suppose you might say that some of us (especially college professors) tend to live more in the abstract than not. But in fact we all have dual citizenship in the concrete and abstract worlds. One world is at our fingertips, at the tips of our tongues, and folded into our fields of vision. The concrete world is just the world; and the more we try to describe it, the more we fail, as the here and now is immeasurably more vivid than the words “here” and “now” could ever suggest – even in italics.

The second world is the one we encounter just as soon as we begin thinking and talking about the here and now. It is such stuff as dreams are made on; its substance is concept, theory, relation. We make models of the concrete world, and think about those models and imagine what the consequences would be if we tried this or that. Sometimes our models are wrong and we make mistakes. Other times our models work pretty well and we manage to figure out some portion of the concrete world and manipulate it to our advantage. But in any case, we all shuttle between the two worlds as we live and think.

Right now, of course, you and I are deep into an abstract world, forming a model of how we move back and forth between our two worlds. We are modeling our own modeling. But I'll drop that line of thought now, since it leaves me dizzy and confused. My fundamental point is that the abstract world isn't reserved only for college professors. We all engage with it all the time, except perhaps when we sleep or are lost blessedly in the vivacity of sensual experience, and it is in some ways just as close to us as whatever is here and now. To be a human, as Schopenhauer suggests, is to live in two worlds.

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by Brooks Riley

UnnamedI’m standing at the window looking north over a small garden with several different kinds of trees and bushes. If I refine my intake of visual information, I am, in fact, gazing at many different shades of green at once, perhaps even all of them (at least 57, like Heinz). There’s the middle green of leaves on a thorny bush in the sunlight, and on the same bush, a darker green tweaked by shade. Add to these variations of light the variety of flora in my view, and I come away with a whole alphabet of green—the common green of a lawn, the brown green of dying leaves, the gray-green highlights of a fir tree, the black green of certain waxy leaves, the lime green of new leaves on a late bloomer, the Schweinfurt green of certain succulents. Green in nature is a chlorophyll-induced industry all its own—a Pantene paradise. . .

. . . for those who love green.

I do not love green. Separated from nature, green is a travesty. I was born with green eyes, and I do love them, but I wouldn’t want their hue on my sofa or my walls or my bedspread or my person. Removed from nature, decorative green is a shabby attempt to remember nature or worse, to try to recreate its effect on us. As a child I was attracted to green olives, acquiring a taste for them that had as much to do with their color as with their shape. But olive green is not that far from baby-couldn’t-help-it green, or drab Polizei green (slowly being phased out in favor of blue), and removed from its smooth round humble origins in an olive, loathsome. So too the so-called institutional green, once thought to soothe the troubled souls of those coerced to spend time in schools, hospitals, or insane asylums.

I’m not here to condemn another’s love of the color green. And from a Pantene point of view, I confess to appreciating certain shades of green (artichoke green, celadon green), as long as I don’t have to apply them to anything.

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by Randolyn Zinn

Flipping through photos of a recent trip to Spain, I was struck by this one.

Fuente Vaqueros tobacco barn

A typical tobacco drying barn a few miles from Granada, Spain, in the fields of Fuento Vaqueros — Federico Garcia Lorca’s birthplace. In town we toured the Lorca family house and museum (no photos allowed) to ogle his cradle, his mother's kitchen and the piano where he practiced cancionnes. Out back an old pomegranate tree in the courtyard was old enough to have shaded Federico as a child as he played beneath its boughs. Upstairs, glass cases displayed selected drawings, notebooks and first editions of his poetry and plays. We sat down to watch a quick film with no sound of the young poet in overalls unloading scenery from the back of a truck with his theatrical troupe, La Barraca, on tour performing Calderon’s La Vida Es Sueno or Life Is A Dream in the white towns of Andulucia. He wrote his own plays at this time: Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba. We gasped at the end of the clip when Lorca smiled and waved at the camera…he was waving to us ninety years later in his own house. Life is a dream.

Am I the only one around here?

by Carl Pierer

OnlyOne-SkrillexIt is necessary that two men have the same number of hair, gold, and others.[i]

This meme is taken from a scene in the Cohen brother's 1998 comedy “The Big Lebowski”. During a game of bowling, Walter, in the picture, gets annoyed at the other characters constantly overstepping the line. Drawing a gun, he asks: “Am I the only around here who gives a shit about rules?”[ii]

Considering that there are roughly 7 billion people on earth, a positive answer seems highly unlikely. But it is possible to do better. We can know with certainty, i.e. prove, that the creator of the meme is not the only one. This is a simple and straightforward application of a fascinating, intuitive and yet powerful mathematical principle. It is usually called “pigeonhole principle” (for reasons to be explained below) or “Dirichlet's principle”.


The German mathematician Gustav Lejeune Dirichlet was born in 1805 in Düren, a small town near Aachen. Although Dirichlet was no child prodigy, his love for mathematics and studies in general became apparent early in his life. His parents had him destined for the career of a merchant, but upon his insisting to attend the Gymnasium (secondary school), they sent him to Bonn, at the age of 12. After only two years, he transferred to a Gymnasium in Cologne, where he studied mathematics with Georg Simon Ohm (1789-1854), who is famous for his discovery of Ohm's Law. Dirichlet left this school after only one year, with a leaving certificate in his pocket but without an Abitur, which would cause him some troubles later in his life. At that time, students were required to be able to carry a conversation in Latin to pass the Abitur examination. With only three years of secondary education, Dirichlet could not comply with this crucial requirement. However, Dirichlet was fortunate that no Abitur was required to study mathematics.

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Reparations for women

by Thomas Rodham Wells

ScreenHunter_860 Oct. 27 10.59You may have heard of the gender income gap. It is one of the most obvious signs that despite being equal in theory, women still lack real equality. Some of it is still due to active discrimination by people who still haven't got the equal treatment message. But much more of it is the result of a history of unjust gender norms and factual errors inscribed into our institutions, most notably the bundle of moral expectations we hold about what can be demanded of women rather than men in terms of unpaid care of children, the disabled and the elderly.

The problem is that fairness – the principle of the equal treatment of equals – is a poor guide to action here. Our history has bequeathed us a gender injustice complex of interlocking and mutually reinforcing institutional arrangements and moral values that altogether make women less economically valued than men. The outcome is pretty clear – women tend to earn much less than men – but it is hard to pin down specific violations of fair treatment by specific agents who can be held responsible. Sexist pigs are relatively easy to pick out and chastise, and in some cases may even be successfully prosecuted for discrimination or other misbehaviour. But it's rather harder to condemn a university educated couple for agreeing between themselves to follow the traditional model of male breadwinner and female homemaker. Even if that decision is replicated in household after household leading to dramatic aggregate differences in labour market participation rates for women, especially in full-time professional work.

It is true that a great many policies have been proposed, and sometimes even implemented, to address different pieces of the gender injustice complex, from quotas in boardrooms and the top management of public institutions to compulsory paternity leave. But such reforms struggle politically, not least because they seem to impose more unfairness – the unequal treatment of men and women because of their gender. A good many people, including many women, reasonably object to the incoherence of trying to solve a fairness problem by creating more unfairness. More positive measures, such as providing free child-care from tax revenues, are considered too expensive to fully implement. And for all the political capital these policies require to be put into action, each can only have incremental effects anyway because they only address one piece of the puzzle at a time. They rarely inspire much popular support.

We've been thinking about this the wrong way, distracted by the idea that unfairness must be produced by bad motives that are best addressed by cumulative moral exhortation, or something else equally cheap like training young women to 'lean in'. If we all want gender equality then eventually, surely, it will come about by itself.

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