Pope Francis, Radical Leftist?

Pope-FrancisElizabeth Stoker Breunig at The New Republic:

In any analysis of a public figure, partisan interests will influence one’s opinion, and there isn’t anything particularly productive about pointing out that conservatives tend to forgive in conservative leaders what they don’t in liberals. A more helpful question is this: Why has Pope Francis addressed political issues, such as climate change, inequality, poverty, and overpopulation? Is it evidence of abject partisan interest, or a covert dedication to communism, Marxism, or some other insidious ideology?

Or is it just that we now presume that “politics” belongs outside the Church’s purview—despite the Church’s historical record of considering and intervening in political affairs? To me, this appears to be the distortion at hand.

This is partly because the notion that “politics” can be neatly separated from daily life is a new one. For earlier political theorists, like Aristotle and Augustine, politics was just a natural extension of community life. But over time, a fantasy of “politics” wholly divorced from everyday life and experience has emerged in certain corners of liberal thought, producing with it the expectation that politics is a matter for professional politicians and their colleagues, while those in religious offices should simply avoid addressing politics altogether.

more here.

21 + 21 = 42

Carley Moore in TNB:

Carley-21-2-e1422065147403Last summer I turned 42 years old. On the morning of my birthday, my then-boyfriend asked me what I was doing when I was 21, half that age. I said, “Baking quiches, dropping acid, and chasing boys.” I imagined this retort as a tweet—short and to the point. I’d managed to get my life at that time down to 39 characters, and it was mostly accurate.

At 21 years old, I was obsessed with Molly Katzen’s Moosewood cookbook, The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. I was going to a state school in upstate New York, not far from the home of the Moosewood restaurant in Ithaca, which had always seemed to me a cultural mecca in a vast state of industrial depression and blight. Ithaca was the home of my favorite thrift shop, Zoo Zoos, and a lot of cute hippie musicians I dreamed of fucking. The cookbook was steeped in that same sexy, vintage, hippie musician lore. I imagined myself cooking for one of those musicians. I could be his “old lady” for a recipe or two. Many of my activities then were overlaid with a fantasy plot line, worthy of an episode of Laverne and Shirley or Three’s Company. I was rarely just doing something; I was doing that thing while imagining I was in the TV sitcom version of it. As a child, I’d made it through my sometimes chore of washing the dishes by pretending I was in a Dawn dish soap ad.

More here.

Unconscious thought not so smart after all

Alison Abbott in Nature:

MindIf you have to make a complex decision, will you do a better job if you absorb yourself in, say, a crossword puzzle instead of ruminating about your options? The idea that unconscious thought is sometimes more powerful than conscious thought is attractive, and echoes ideas popularized by books such as writer Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling Blink. But within the scientific community, ‘unconscious-thought advantage’ (UTA) has been controversial. Now Dutch psychologists have carried out the most rigorous study yet of UTA — and find no evidence for it.

…A typical study probing UTA asks subjects to make a complex decision, such as choosing a car or a computer, after either mulling over a list of the object’s attributes or viewing the list quickly and then engaging in a distracting activity such as a word puzzle. However, such studies have drawn different conclusions, with about half of those published so far reporting a UTA effect and the other half finding none. Proponents of the theory claim that the effect is exquisitely sensitive to experimental variations, and often attribute the negative results to the fact that many research groups varied elements of the set-up, such as the choice of puzzle used for the distraction3. Critics say that the positive results came from having too few participants in the experiments. Psychologists Mark Nieuwenstein and Hedderik van Rijn at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands set out with their colleagues to determine which explanation was correct. They asked 399 participants — around ten times more than the typical (median) sample sizes in other studies — to choose between either 4 cars or 4 apartments on the basis of 12 desirable or undesirable features. They incorporated the full list of conditions that UTA proponents had reported as yielding the strongest effect, such as the exact type of puzzle used as a distraction. They found that the distracted group was no more likely than the deliberating group to choose the most desirable item.

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Why free speech is fundamental

Steven Pinker in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_965 Jan. 28 12.54More than two centuries after freedom of speech was enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, that right is very much in the news. Campus speech codes, disinvited commencement speakers, jailed performance artists, exiled leakers, a blogger condemned to a thousand lashes by one of our closest allies, and the massacre of French cartoonists have forced the democratic world to examine the roots of its commitment to free speech.

Is free speech merely a symbolic talisman, like a national flag or motto? Is it just one of many values that we trade off against each other? Was Pope Francis right when he said that “you cannot make fun of the faith of others”? May universities muzzle some students to protect the sensibilities of others? Did the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists “cross a line that separates free speech from toxic talk,” as the dean of a school of journalism recently opined? Or is free speech fundamental — a right which, if not absolute, should be abrogated only in carefully circumscribed cases?

The answer is that free speech is indeed fundamental. It’s important to remind ourselves why, and to have the reasons at our fingertips when that right is called into question.

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Larry Sultan’s photos capture, tenderly, the paradise of Southern California – and the tensions and desires that complicate it

Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

IC_MEIS_SULTAN_AP_000When I look at photographs by Larry Sultan I smell eucalyptus and lavender. Those are the plants I can name. I also smell the gnarled bushes and brown weeds, the nameless desert flowers that grew in the nooks and crannies of Laurel Canyon, in the places that hadn’t been watered and replanted by homeowners. Running around in the behind-spaces of the Hollywood Hills as a youth, I smelled all those smells, got them on my fingers. It is strange that a photograph, something that cannot be smelled or touched or tasted, could recall those sensations. But those dirt-dusted plant smells are in every frame of Sultan’s photographic series Pictures from Home (1982-92), The Valley (1998-2003), and Homeland (2006-9).

Larry Sultan died of cancer in 2009; the Homeland series constitutes his final testimony. The smelliest of the Homeland pictures is, for me, Creek, Santa Rosa (2007). Santa Rosa is actually up in Northern California, but Sultan shot it to look more or less the same as L.A.’s Valley. The picture shows a half-dried creek behind a housing development. A youngish Latino man crouches down with a bucket. Presumably, he is gathering water. Another man is heading up the hill behind, his bucket already full. In terms of content, the picture is not unlike something you might see in a 17th century painting. European villagers drawing water from a nearby river. Something painted, maybe, by Claude Lorrain.

But in a picture by Claude Lorrain, the villagers drawing the water are fully integrated into the landscape. With Claude, people belong to place and place belongs to people. The paintings work because everything holds together in a neo-classical pictorial oneness. It doesn’t work that way in a picture by Larry Sultan. The two men in Creek, Santa Rosa are drawing water from the creek because they don’t have access to the taps in the modern homes just behind them.

More here.

Raising Elvis

Allison Gehlhaus in Brain, Child:

SymbolsIt’s been an eye-opening twelve years. A time to examine some preconceived—literally—notions regarding the raising of boys and girls. Especially my own. I had been stunned and hurt by the comments I heard after the birth of our daughters. The nurses at the hospital told me that they hear a lot of women apologize to their husbands after giving birth to girls. Seriously. Right in the labor room. One nurse said, “Don’t they realize that it is the man who determines the sex of the baby?” Another quipped, “So maybe the men should apologize.”

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when visitors would say, “Maybe next time,” with a dismissive wave at our little pink bundles of joy. Or, “How soon are you going to try again?”

My brother-in-law actually said, “Three girls. That’s the pits.”

He’s lucky to be alive.

“Another girl? Is Hank mad at you?” a neighbor asked.

And when I answered, “Yeah, my husband’s furious, he’s kicking me out next week,” she didn’t even flinch.

Read the rest here.

Claude McKay Walks in Ferguson

David X. Noval in The Critical Flame:

ScreenHunter_964 Jan. 27 19.53Claude McKay, born in Jamaica in 1890, is the first modern master of the sonnet form. Yeats of course had turned out a few—one a classic—as had Pound. Cummings wrote plenty of sonnets, but, because of their idiosyncrasies, they are more complications than masterworks. Wilfred Owen, if he had lived, might have rivaled McKay, as he was disposed to the sonnet and masterful in its usage. The only other serious contender, to my mind, would be Edna St. Vincent Millay, and perhaps later, Berryman. In the Selected Poems, first published in 1953, several years after his death, Max Eastman writes (with what McKay’s biographer, Wayne Cooper, generously describes as an “unconscious condescension”):

Claude McKay was most widely known perhaps as a novelist, author of Home to Harlem, a national best-seller in 1928. But he will live in history as the first great lyric genius that his race produced.

Why then has McKay’s work languished in relative obscurity? Eastman writes in 1953 that his “place in the world’s literature is unique and is assured.” Yet in his fifties, after a decade of illness, McKay sought to end his financial difficulties by taking on employment as a riveter—something he was not physically equipped to handle, and which surely contributed to a stroke at age fifty-three. He had turned down a “sizeable” book advance, explaining, “I haven’t been able to concentrate on a plot. It’s quite impossible when one’s mind is distracted. People can’t realize the state of one’s mind under such conditions, and the few I meet make me angry by telling me how happy I look.”

More here.

Remembering Robert Stone

RobertstoneStephen Goodwin at The American Scholar:

Robert Stone, who died on January 10, was a member of the all-but-vanished tribe of hard-living, two-fisted, wildly ambitious American novelists who grew up in Hemingway’s slipstream. In the 1960s, when Bob was writing his first novel, Hall of Mirrors, the elders were guys like Norman Mailer, William Styron, Saul Bellow, and Nelson Algren. They punched like heavyweights. They swung for the fences. They all stalked that shaggy beast, the Great American Novel.

Or so it seemed to an impressionable younger writer like me; I felt just enough younger to have missed out on something. Perhaps I romanticized the generation of writers ahead of me, but from the safety of the academy—I was on path of the writer-teacher—they did seem larger-than-life: more adventurous, more daring, more glamorous that the rest of us would ever be.

By the time I met Bob, he had already won the 1975 National Book Award for his second novel, Dog Soldiers, a thriller that linked the disastrous war in Vietnam with the drug culture that was epidemic on the home front. That book is richly populated with the kinds of characters who would become familiar to his readers: the druggies, the drunks, the psychopaths, the world-weary, the desperate, and the deluded, some of them so violent, cruel, or just plain loony that they could strike fear in your heart.

more here.


ImagesMichael Dirda at The Washington Post:

When I first picked up this eerie-looking paperback, attracted by the half-spider, half-human figure on the cover, its author was completely unknown to me. That doesn’t happen a lot (he said immodestly). I could see that Mynona was the German word for “anonymous” spelled backward, but that only fed my curiosity. So I turned to the dust jacket flap of “The Creator” and read the following:

“Mentioned in his day in the same breath as Kafka, Mynona, aka Salomo Friedlaender (1871-1946), was a perfectly functioning split personality: a serious philosopher by day (author of ‘Friedrich Nietzsche: An Intellectual Biography’ and ‘Kant for Kids’) and a literary absurdist by night, who composed black-humored tales he called ‘Groteske.’ His friends and fans included Martin Buber, Walter Benjamin, and Karl Kraus.”

I think it was “Kant for Kids”— the mind reels — even more than the mention of Kafka or literary absurdism that made me look further into this odd novella, originally published in 1920.

more here.

Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book

M.-houellebecq-2010�sylvain-bourmeau-e1420217389165Michel Houellebecq interviewed at Paris Review:

Where did you get the idea for a presidential election, in 2022, that came down to Marine Le Pen and the leader of a Muslim party?

Well, Marine Le Pen strikes me as a realistic candidate for 2022—even for 2017 … The Muslim party is more … That’s the heart of the matter, really. I tried to put myself in the place of a Muslim, and I realized that, in reality, they are in a totally schizophrenic situation. Because overall Muslims aren’t interested in economic issues, their big issues are what we nowadays call societal issues. On these issues, obviously, they are very far from the left and even further from the Green Party. Just think of gay marriage and you’ll see what I mean, but the same is true across the board. And one doesn’t really see why they’d vote for the right, much less for the extreme right, which utterly rejects them. So if a Muslim wants to vote, what’s he supposed to do? The truth is, he’s in an impossible situation. He has no representation whatsoever. It would be wrong to say that this religion has no political consequences—it does. So does Catholicism, for that matter, even if the Catholics have been more or less marginalized. For those reasons, it seems to me, a Muslim party makes a lot of sense.

But to imagine that such a party might find itself poised to win a presidential election seven years from now

I agree, it’s not very realistic. For two reasons, actually. First—and this is the most difficult thing to imagine—the Muslims would have to succeed in getting along with each other. That would take someone extremely intelligent and with an extraordinary political talent, qualities that I give to my character Ben Abbes. But an extreme talent is, by definition, an unusual occurrence. But supposing he existed, the party could take off, but it would take longer than seven years.

more here.

Man Down: why men are ridiculous

Amanda Marcotte in Slate:

BookMen: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation may be the most provocative title in a long list of provocative book titles from essayist Laura Kipnis—a remarkable feat for a woman whose previous works include Against Love and Bound and Gagged.

…Repeatedly, she zeroes in on how keenly men are rankled by their revoked entitlement to female flattery, and it’s always hilarious. Christopher Hitchens’ fantasy that men and not women evolved humor for reproductive purposes, she writes, has “the slightly musty air of the 1960-ish Kingsley Amis, wrapped in nostalgia for the merry days when sexual conquest required an arsenal of tactics deployed by bon-vivantish cads on girdled, girlish sexual holdouts.” And in a particularly hilarious piece looking at right-wing male reactions to Hillary Clinton, she muses, “You’d think they were talking about their first wives.” Kipnis paints all this male anxiety in the face of women’s growing power as both humorous and poignant. Thankfully though, despite the residual chill girl tendencies, she never suggests that women should abandon feminism to calm men down.

More here.

Can This Treatment Help Me?

Austin Frakt and Aaron E. Carroll in The New York Times:

Health-articleLargeConsider aspirin for heart attack prevention. Based upon both modifiable risk factors like cholesterol level and smoking, and factors that are beyond one’s control, like family history and age, it is possible to calculate the chance that a person will have a first heart attack in the next 10 years. The American Heart Association recommends that people who have more than a 10 percent chance take a daily aspirin to avoid that heart attack. How effective is aspirin for that aim? According to clinical trials, if about 2,000 people follow these guidelines over a two-year period, one additional first heart attack will be prevented. That doesn’t mean the 1,999 other people have heart attacks. The fact is, on average about 3.6 of them would have a first heart attack regardless of whether they took the aspirin. Even more important, 1,995.4 people would never have a heart attack whether or not they took aspirin. Only one person is actually affected by aspirin. If he takes it, the number of people who remain heart attack-free rises to 1996.4. If he doesn’t, the number remains 1995.4. But for 1,999 of the 2,000 people, aspirin doesn’t make any difference at all.

…The Mediterranean diet, which is heavy in vegetables, fruits, nuts and olive oil; moderate in fish and poultry; and light in dairy, meat and sweets; has long been advocated as a means to avoid heart disease. In people who have never had a heart attack, but who are at risk, the N.N.T. is 61 to avoid a heart attack, stroke or death. And that is for people who adhere to the diet for about five years. For those at higher risk, who have already had a heart attack, to avoid one additional death, the N.N.T. is about 30. That’s the number of people who would have to adhere to the diet for four years so that one extra person survived. About 1.4 people out of 30 such people will die no matter what they eat; 27.6 will not die no matter what they eat. Only one will benefit from sticking to the diet.

More here.

Tuesday poem


I wake up in the middle of the night
hear the house settling, the ceiling creaking
realize I have no bottled water
canned food, flashlight, rifle or bullets
stored in the hidden room off of my office

my children can't live on
holiday decorations or bagged, off-season clothing
if the war comes
id the monsters come
if civilization slows to a standstill before
crumbling to dust

I think of my hands catching rabbits
and wonder if I could really
gut and skin a squirrel
if I could master the skills
of building fired and making traps
as my ancestors did
35,000 years ago

my husband snorts in irritation beside me
coming out of sleep as I twitch
in despair of our future helplessness
with my need to rush out of bed to fill empty milk jugs
with tap water, break coffee cups and plates to make
arrowheads and spears

by Holly Day
from CadillacCicatrix

The Politics of Barbarism

by Ahmed Humayun

ScreenHunter_962 Jan. 26 10.27Is there a method to the madness of Islamist extremism? Yes, if a voluminous literature produced by militants in Arabic and other languages is to be believed. One example of the genre is the militant manual, the Management of Savagery, a text highly influential among Islamist radicals, and translated from Arabic into English by the combating terrorism center at West Point. It is a curious amalgamation of geopolitical analysis, religious propaganda, social psychology, and military tactics. The work has some literary pretensions but it is of uneven quality and gives the impression of being pasted together from disparate sources.

Yet it also outlines a clear, coherent worldview, a theory of geopolitical change, and, when it is not recycling superficial clichés about Western decadence, offers penetrating insight into how terrorist tactics can succeed, even when they appear to fail. It is a call to action that outlines a series of concrete, often diabolically clever steps that have been followed by a wide range of militant groups. There is a striking parallel between the prescriptions in the text and the actions of ISIS, the militant group that now controls a vast chunk of territory in the Arab heartland.

The fall of the Ottoman Caliphate, and the partition of the Middle East by European powers has long been a preoccupation of radicals in their diagnosis of the ills plaguing Arab societies. The text takes the same stance, rejecting not just the current governments that prevail in the Middle East, but the global order as a whole. It sees a world in which major powers in the center – the United States, above all – ally with tyrannies in the periphery, imposing through them a foreign, 'apostate' order in Muslim majority societies.

This historical moment is not unprecedented, it is argued. After the breakdown of political order such as that occurred in the early 20th century there is always a period of transition before a new settled order comes into being. Such a transitional state prevails in the Muslim world today. Militant groups should therefore seek to 'vex' and 'exhaust' the enemy- the regimes ruling their societies, or their Western allies. This will catalyze the breakout of chaos – the weakening of political authority across the land, creating opportunities for militants to 'manage the savagery' successfully, so that the ultimate goal, an Islamic state, may be realized.

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