A family survives the Armenian genocide and its long aftermath

Raffi Khatchadourian in The New Yorker:

ScreenHunter_929 Jan. 08 17.07When I try to imagine my grandfather, the face that appears to me is a variation of a pencil drawing that hangs in my parents’ house. The drawing captures the earliest image of him that we have in our family. He appears to be in his thirties, and he stares down from the wall with a serious countenance, a sharply groomed mustache, a tall, stiff collar, a tie pin. He seems like a self-possessed man, with an air of formality: a formidable person.

I never had the chance to meet him. I was born in the nineteen-seventies, on Long Island, and he was born in the eighteen-eighties, in the Ottoman Empire, near the Euphrates River. He died in 1959—the year that the first spacecraft reached the moon, Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba, and Philip Roth published “Goodbye, Columbus,” though I suspect he would have known nothing of those things. What he knew was privation, mass violence, famine, deportation—and how to survive, even flourish, amid such circumstances.

My grandfather spent most of his life in Diyarbakir, a garrison town in southeastern Turkey. Magnificent old walls surround the city; built of black volcanic rock, they were begun by the Romans and then added to by Arabs and Ottomans. In 1915, the Ottomans turned the city, the surrounding province, and much of modern-day Turkey into a killing field, in a campaign of massacres and forced expulsions that came to be known as the Armenian genocide. The plan was to eradicate the empire’s Armenians—“a deadly illness whose cure called for grim measures”—and it was largely successful. The Ottomans killed more than a million people, but, somehow, not my grandfather.

More here.

Debating dead moral questions

Freddie deBoer on his blog:


The Aftermath (via reddit). By Carlos Latuff

We are having a series of loud, impassioned, righteous conversations about questions like “Should people murder?” and “Should we have the right to publish cartoons?” We’re debating, in other words, dead moral questions, and for the same reason we always do: because that debate allows us to ignore the ones that might lead us to a different place than the celebration of our own liberal righteousness. To read the people writing about this attack, this is the fundamental question at hand: were these killings OK? If that were actually a moral question worth asking, then it would provoke disagreement. And yet I see no disagreement. None at all. Please: point me to any piece that endorses these killings that does not come from the looniest fringes of our political order. This Jacobin piece is getting passed around as an example of left-wing illiberalism, and yet in its very first paragraph, it asserts what absolutely everyone else is asserting: that there are no justifications for this, that the attacks are abhorrent, that free speech must be defended. Please, point me in the direction of a defense of these attacks that is anything resembling prominent or empowered. You are all debating an idea that no one at all is advancing.

The question of the price that Muslims will pay for these attacks– that is a live question, the security and rights of the Muslim people is very much uncertain, indeed. If there is anything that this country has stood for in the last 15 years, it is its willingness to sacrifice anything to fight Muslim extremism, and in the process, innocent Muslims. We have invaded multiple Muslim countries, sent secret raids into far more, killed Muslims with drones and bombs, wiretapped Muslims at home and abroad, sent agents to infiltrate their mosques, thrown dozens of them into a prison camp without trial or judicial review, assassinated them without due process, tortured them, and spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives in doing so. Of all the things that you should fear your government will lose the resolve to do, fighting Muslim terrorists should be at the absolute bottom of your list. There is no function that our government has performed more enthusiastically for years. Can any credible person doubt our commitment to fighting Muslim terrorists, in 2015?

Peter Beinart and Ross Douthat and Jon Chait and hundreds more will take the time in the week to come to beat their chests and declare themselves firmly committed to brave ideas like “murder is bad” and “free speech is good.” None of them, if pressed, would pretend that we are at risk of abandoning our commitment against murder or in favor of free speech. None of them think that, in response to this attack, we or France or any other industrialized nation is going to pass a bill declaring criticism of Islam illegal. In fact, all of them would, if pressed, likely admit that the result will be literally the opposite: that we will become more belligerent against Muslim extremism, not less; that we will become more aggressive in our posture against Islam, not less; that the public mood, already dark towards Islam, will grow only darker. They know all of this. They simply won’t tell you about it.

Read the full post here.

What is Charlie Hebdo? The magazine that dared to poke fun at religion

Agnes Poirier in New Statesman:

Editor’s note: on 7 January 2015, the office of Charlie Hebdo was attacked by gunmen. 12 people are so far reported dead, and more injured. As context, we republish this 2007 article about the magazine.

CoverThis month, the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo was put on trial after publishing, in its special issue of February 2006, the 12 Danish Muhammad cartoons, and a string of caricatures by well-known French artists. All were lampooning religious figures such as Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, along with their priests, imams, rabbis – name it. The cover image by Cabu, showed, under the headline “Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists”, the Prophet covering his eyes with his hands and crying: “It's hard to be loved by idiots.” Charlie Hebdo is being sued for racism by the Paris Grand Mosque, the Union of Islamic Organisations of France (an association under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood's Hani Ramadan and Yussuf al-Qaradawi) and the World Islamic League (a Saudi foundation which promotes Wahhabism). Their evidence includes three cartoons – Cabu's, the Danish drawing showing the Prophet with a “turbomb” (a bomb in his turban), and another with a religious Muslim at heaven's gates warning Islamist terrorists: “Stop, we've run out of virgins.”

The background to this trial begins in September 2005, when the conservative Danish daily Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet in different ways. Islamist imams staged official protests throughout the world. Then all hell broke loose: burning of embassies, torching of flags, reprisal killings. In total, 140 people died in extremely violent clashes. Europe, taken aback by such violence, seemed almost absent-minded. Its media were unusually quiet. In Britain, the historical bastion of freedom of speech, none of the national dailies published the cartoons. Jack Straw, the then foreign secretary, praised the country's editors for “considerable sensitivity” in not printing the cartoons, and attacked European publications for doing so: “The republication of these cartoons has been disrespectful and it has been wrong.” Across the Channel, France-Soir published them all, and as a result its managing editor was sacked. Soon after, Charlie Hebdo, to show solidarity, reprinted the Nordic cartoons and commissioned more drawings from its cartoonists. This act, from a satirical weekly respected for its staunch secularism (and one that even Christian fundamentalists wouldn't dream of suing for “disrespect” and “insensitivity”, let alone “blasphemy”), triggered unexpected reactions.

Picture: “Love is stronger than hate”: the cover of Charlie Hebdo after the building was attacked in 2011.

More here.

Thursday Poem

Letting Go

I love the abandon
of abandoned things

the harmonium surrendering
in a churchyard in Aherlow,
the hearse resigned to nettles
behind a pub in Carna,
the tin dancehall possessed
by convolvulus in Kerry,
the living room that hosts
a tree in south Kilkenny.

I sense a rapture
in deserted things

washed-out circus posters
derelict on gables,
lush forgotten sidings
of country railway stations,
bat droppings profligate
on pew and font and lectern,
the wedding dress a dog
has nosed from a dustbin.

I love the openness
of things no longer viable,
I sense their shameless
slow unbuttoning:
the implicit nakedness
there for the taking,
the surrender to the dance
of breaking and creating.

by Michael Coady
from Oven Lane
The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 1987

Resveratrol found to activate ancient stress response and at 1,000 times lower doses

From KurzweilAI:

RedScientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have found that a fundamental new mechanism for the known beneficial effects of resveratrol — the grapes and red-wine ingredient once touted as an elixir of youth: it powerfully activates an evolutionarily ancient stress response in human cells. “This stress response represents a layer of biology that has been largely overlooked, and resveratrol turns out to activate it at much lower concentrations than those used in prior studies,” said senior investigator Paul Schimmel, professor and member of the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology at TSRI. The discovery is reported in Nature. Resveratrol is a compound produced in grapes, cacao beans, Japanese knotweed and some other plants in response to stresses including infection, drought and ultraviolet radiation. It has attracted widespread scientific and popular interest over the past decade, as researchers have reported that it extended lifespan and prevented diabetes in obese mice and vastly increased the stamina of ordinary mice running on wheels. More recently, though, scientists in this field have disagreed about the signaling pathways resveratrol activates to promote health, questioning some of resveratrol’s supposed health benefits.

…The first studies of resveratrol in the early 2000s had suggested that it exerts some of its positive effects on health by activating SIRT1, also thought to be a longevity gene. But SIRT1’s role in mediating resveratrol’s reported health-boosting effects has been questioned lately. The team’s experiments showed, however, that the TyrRS-PARP-1 pathway can be measurably activated by much lower doses of resveratrol — as much as 1,000 times lower — than were used in some of the more celebrated prior studies, including those focused on SIRT1. “Based on these results, it is conceivable that moderate consumption of a couple glasses of red wine (rich in resveratrol) would give a person enough resveratrol to evoke a protective effect via this pathway,” Sajish said. He also suspects that effects of resveratrol that only appear at unrealistically high doses may have confounded some prior findings.

More here.

The Blame for the Charlie Hebdo Murders

George Packer in The New Yorker:

ScreenHunter_926 Jan. 08 11.05The murders today in Paris are not a result of France’s failure to assimilate two generations of Muslim immigrants from its former colonies. They’re not about French military action against the Islamic State in the Middle East, or the American invasion of Iraq before that. They’re not part of some general wave of nihilistic violence in the economically depressed, socially atomized, morally hollow West—the Paris version of Newtown or Oslo. Least of all should they be “understood” as reactions to disrespect for religion on the part of irresponsible cartoonists.

They are only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades. It’s the same ideology that sent Salman Rushdie into hiding for a decade under a death sentence for writing a novel, then killed his Japanese translator and tried to kill his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher. The ideology that murdered three thousand people in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. The one that butchered Theo van Gogh in the streets of Amsterdam, in 2004, for making a film. The one that has brought mass rape and slaughter to the cities and deserts of Syria and Iraq. That massacred a hundred and thirty-two children and thirteen adults in a school in Peshawar last month. That regularly kills so many Nigerians, especially young ones, that hardly anyone pays attention.

More here.

The Dastardly Attack in Paris

by S. Abbas Raza

ScreenHunter_924 Jan. 07 18.23On February 14, 1989, I was working as a young engineer in my office at the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, DC, when I heard the news of Khomeini's murderous fatwa against Salman Rushdie and all the publishers of his novel The Satanic Verses. In retrospect, I am surprised by just how much the news upset me. I was unable to work and got permission to leave early and went home. It wasn't just that Salman Rushdie was one of my favorite writers, someone I consider a literary genius, and I was afraid for his safety; it was also that I knew in my gut that this was the opening salvo in what would become a massive internationalization of an Islamic war on freedom of speech and expression. After all, the government of Iran was threatening and planning to murder a British citizen, and even encouraging other Britons to murder him by putting a bounty on his head, with the enthusiastic approval of a large proportion of Muslims everywhere. And although, thank goodness, Rushdie remains safe, the Islamists have largely been winning this war since. They have successfully intimidated a very large number of writers and artists and journalists and film-makers all over the world into silence (and many live in exile because of threats to their safety), and within Muslim countries they have in addition used blasphemy laws to persecute their enemies and basically make any discussion of religion impossible. All this while religious apologists continue to proclaim to CNN and the BBC that their religion stands only for peace. Tell that to the tens of thousands of victims of religious violence in Pakistan alone. “Oh, the number of extremists is very small; most Muslims are peace-loving people.” The number of actual terrorists is always small. The problem is that too great a proportion of Muslims sympathize with these people, which is why it is impossible to eliminate them. Let us stop fooling ourselves with this nonsense. People need to stand up for free speech unequivocally, and against this barbarity, and especially Muslims need to. The battle must be joined now, in every way possible.

Salman Rushdie has just given a statement about the attack. It is here.

Stanisław Barańczak’s “This Is Not a Conversation for the Telephone”

Z3736801vDan Peipenberg at The Paris Review:

I’ve been thinking today of Stanisław Barańczak, the Polish poet and translator who died last month at sixty-eight. He was known for flouting state censors with poems that mocked the euphemistic language of communism, and his work was seditious enough that in the seventies he was barred from publishing in Poland, though he continued to publish underground. By the early eighties, his politics had cost him his job as a professor in Poznan, and he decamped to the U.S. to lecture at Harvard. In a famous speech he likened life as a dissident to breathing underwater, with a nod to a science-fiction story by Stanisław Lem:

Bubbling sounds were the only acceptable means of communication, the official propaganda emphasized the advantages of being wet, and occasional breathing above water was considered almost a political offense—although everyone had to do it from time to time …

I wonder what Barańczak would’ve made of the new PEN International report, published this morning, on writers and government surveillance. It suggests that free expression around the world—even in the U.S., where what we’ve come to call “content producers” aren’t in the habit of fearing violence from the state—is in some ways more embattled now than it’s been since the Cold War.

more here.

the internet and the new face of photography

VS_POLCH_PUBEYE_CO_003James Polchin at The Smart Set:

What you notice in the historical movements of this show is how much the act of photographing has turned from public vision to private realities. Early works here rest often on travels. The 19th century French archeologist Désiré Charnay photographed ancient ruins in Mexico and the Yucatan. Maxime du Champ’s stark images of ruined temples and building facades from his many trips to Egypt, Palestine and Syria, shimmer in their distance and realism. Near these images sit American photographer Carleton Watkin’s expansive views of Yosemite in the 1860s. And just a few photographs from these we encounter two iconic 20th century images of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s German industrial silos from 1968, looking stoic and solemn. It is unclear how the Becher’s industrial countryside fit into the street views. This confusion underscores the shows frenetic movement across geographies and time periods. While the organization is clearly a walk through time with each section of the show, there is an unacknowledged history of interests and intents by the photographers here — an intent that defines what and how we are asked to see the world they present us.

Consider one of the first works in the Crowd Sourcing section: John Forbes Watson and John William Kaye’s book People of India. The book presents over 400 images of India. The particular page we look at is of three “low cast Hindoos” standing against a stone wall, holding roughly hewn sticks, and gazing into the camera looking uncomfortably confused. Watson and Kaye began this project in 1868, ten years after British rule was established in India. The photographs, the exhibition text tells us, were “taken by a dozen different photographers most of whom were government and military officials.” What are we to make of this historical fact?

more here.

What the World Will Speak in 2115

BN-GG149_cover_J_20150102112722John H. McWhorter at The Wall Street Journal:

Yet more to the point, by 2115, it’s possible that only about 600 languages will be left on the planet as opposed to today’s 6,000. Japanese will be fine, but languages spoken by smaller groups will have a hard time of it. Too often, colonialization has led to the disappearance of languages: Native speakers have been exterminated or punished for using their languages. This has rendered extinct or moribund, for example, most of the languages of Native Americans in North America and Aboriginal peoples of Australia. Urbanization has only furthered the destruction, by bringing people away from their homelands to cities where a single lingua franca reigns.

Even literacy, despite its benefits, can threaten linguistic diversity. To the modern mind, languages used in writing, with its permanence and formality, seem legitimate and “real,” while those that are only spoken—that is, all but a couple hundred of them today—can seem evanescent and parochial. Few illusions are harder to shed than the idea that only writing makes something “a language.” Consider that Yiddish is often described as a “dying” language at a time when hundreds of thousands of people are living and raising children in it—just not writing it much—every day in the U.S. and Israel.

more here.

The new modesty in literary criticism

Jeffrey J. Williams in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Literary criticismLiterary criticism once had an outsize reach, influencing the terms and concepts of disciplines like art and legal studies. With it came an outsize ego. During the 1970s and 80s, the heyday of literary theory, scholars aimed to explode the foundations of Western metaphysics, foment a revolution of the sign, overturn gender hierarchies, and fight the class struggle.

The battles weren’t just in their imagination. In 1991 the columnist George Will declared Lynne Cheney, then chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, “secretary of domestic defense” for staving off literary theorists who were threatening the canon and traditional cultural values.

But in the past decade, we’ve seen a new modesty. Literary critics have become more subdued, adopting methods with less grand speculation, more empirical study, and more use of statistics or other data. They aim to read, describe, and mine data rather than make “interventions” of world-historical importance. Their methods include “surface reading,” “thin description,” “the new formalism,” “book history,” “distant reading,” “the new sociology.”

Since the 1950s, the dominant practice in academe has been “criticism”; not the dusty excavation of facts about literature that had marked the field before that—the linguistic and historical background on Elizabethan England or Norse verb forms, or whether Chaucer traveled to France to hear his tales—but analysis and interpretation. Critics became seers who uncovered the special significance of texts, or warriors who critiqued society. Today they are still interested in “reading” texts, but their approach to what they read is different.

In part, the shift represents a generational turnover, and dispensing with some of the overblown assertions of literary theory is refreshing. But it also seems to express the shrunken expectations of academe, particularly of the humanities, and a decline in the social prestige of literary criticism.

Read the rest here.

Imagine… a world without work

From The New Humanist:

For many people, jobs are boring, low-paid, humiliating and increasingly scarce. New Humanist asks three young writers: what if we just did away with them? In discussion with New Humanist are Federico Campagna, author of The Last Night: Anti-Work, Atheism, Adventure (Zero Books); James Meadway, senior economist at the New Economics Foundation; and Dawn Foster, a journalist who writes on social inequality.

DebateNH: Federico, what are you trying to say in your book by comparing work to religion?

Federico: When I first moved to Britain from southern Italy, I noticed this strange attachment to work, which contradicted the image I had of Anglo-Saxon rationalism. Instead of the activity of work being efficiently aimed at something, it was going round in a circle. People kept working overtime and I kept wondering, “Why do they do that? They are not going to get any praise, they are not going to get any money, they’re actually damaging their lives, so why do it?” I noticed there was a religious element, in the sense that work gives you something that nothing else does, which is that you became part of something bigger than yourself. You sacrifice your life, but what you get is somehow immortality, you become part of capital, part of the nation, part of the everlasting glorious community, and so on.

The idea of the “Protestant work ethic” has been around for a long time, so how much is this a new development?

James: What’s very striking – this is from a pure economics point of view – is that since 2008, productivity, in Britain, has declined, so for every hour that people are working, they are less and less productive as time goes on, certainly relative to similar countries. A typical hour worked in Germany now produces 30 per cent more monetary value than a typical hour worked here. And in the last 30 years or so, the progressive end of society seems to have wandered away from questions about the working day, how long it should be and what you do with it, and how much time you get after it. The demand for shorter working hours was at the heart of the labour movement from the early 19th century onwards.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Lullaby for a Daughter

Go to sleep. Night is a coal pit
full of black water—
……………. night's a dark cloud
full of warm rain.

Go to sleep. Night is a flower
resting from bees—
……………. night's a green sea
swollen with fish.

Go to sleep. Night is a white moon
riding her mare—
……………. night is a bright sun
burned to black cinder.

Go to sleep,
night's come,
cat's day,
owl's day,
star's feast of praise,
moon to reign over
her sweet subject, dark.

by Jim Harrison
from Selected and New Poems
Delacorte Press, 1982

End of cancer-genome project prompts rethink

Heidi Ledford in Nature:

CancerA mammoth US effort to genetically profile 10,000 tumours has officially come to an end. Started in 2006 as a US$100-million pilot, The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) is now the biggest component of the International Cancer Genome Consortium, a collaboration of scientists from 16 nations that has discovered nearly 10 million cancer-related mutations.

The question is what to do next. Some researchers want to continue the focus on sequencing; others would rather expand their work to explore how the mutations that have been identified influence the development and progression of cancer. “TCGA should be completed and declared a victory,” says Bruce Stillman, president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. “There will always be new mutations found that are associated with a particular cancer. The question is: what is the cost–benefit ratio?” Stillman was an early advocate for the project, even as some researchers feared that it would drain funds away from individual grants. Initially a three-year project, it was extended for five more years. In 2009, it received an additional $100 million from the US National Institutes of Health plus $175 million from stimulus funding that was intended to spur the US economy during the global economic recession.

More here.

Orality, Literacy, and the Memorized Poem

Ponyboy-ponyboy-curtis-24862270-356-448Mike Chasar at Poetry Magazine:

Partway through Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s 1967 novel The Outsiders, Ponyboy Curtis (played by C. Thomas Howell) and Johnny Cade (Ralph Macchio) are hiding out in an abandoned church in the country because Johnny knifed and accidentally killed a guy in a late-night fight. In the church, separated from the pain and gang violence of their low-income lives, the teens can be most fully themselves, and they spend their time reading Gone with the Wind to each other as they wait for Dallas (Matt Dillon) to show up and say the coast is clear.

One morning, the blond-haired and poetically-inclined Ponyboy gets up early and watches the sunrise through the mist. He is joined by Johnny, who remarks, “Too bad it can’t stay like that all the time.” Ponyboy responds, “Nothing gold can stay,” and proceeds to recite in full Robert Frost’s well-known poem of the same title:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

When Johnny asks, “Where’d you learn that?” Ponyboy replies, “Robert Frost wrote it. I always remembered it because I never quite knew what he meant by it.”

more here.