the legacy of The New republic

Suter-Columns-ScialabbaGeorge Scialabba at The Baffler:

“Twentieth-century liberalism has won.” So ran the first sentence of The New Republic’s eightieth-anniversary anthology back in 1994. Liberalism “inspired democratic revolutions from the Soviet Union to South Africa,” according to the anthology’s editor, Dorothy Wickenden, and finally “disabused this country of its prolonged infatuation with conservatism.” Occupying the White House were two men with “intellectual edge and moral intuition,” the magazine’s editors enthused, who offered “the best chance in a generation to bring reform and renewal to a country that desperately needs both.”

How accurate you think this judgment is depends on what you understand by that perennially disputed word, “liberalism.” Originally it meant the opposite of mercantilism, the close government regulation of commercial policy to benefit domestic merchants by means of tariffs and restrictions on the movement of capital and technology. Mercantilism, protectionism, and industrial policy all name various aspects of the impulse to limit competition from abroad. As Britain and the United States became the world’s leading economic powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, respectively, each decided that other countries’ efforts to favor the home team were no longer cricket and that unregulated (i.e., “free”) competition—which, by the merest coincidence, they were most likely to win—was in everyone’s best interest. “Liberalism,” from the Latin word for “free,” is the name of this ideology. Even now, European political parties that call themselves “liberal” mean by it “pro-business.” The leading voice of nineteenth-century liberalism was The Economist, which famously argued that to provide famine aid to Ireland would be to interfere with the necessarily benign workings of the free market.

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Is ISIS Islamic? Why it matters for the study of Islam

Faqih_and_studentsAnver Emon at The Immanent Frame:

For instance, suppose instead of asking whether ISIS is Islamic, we were to say that ISIS is as much Islamic as it is a product of broken promises at the end of the British and French mandates; ISIS is as much Islamic as it is a product of the American interventions in Iraq; ISIS’s brutality is as Islamic as the Ku Klux Klan’s lynching of Black Americans was Christian, both Islam and Christianity having been used to justify violent brutality. To baldly pose these claims is to reveal the parochialisms that frame debates on Islam and Muslims, that inform certain politics of belonging and difference (read, Fox News), and that bolster the state policies that flow therefrom (e.g. Shari’a legislative bans).

To reveal these parochialisms illuminates how the arguments for and against moral panic artificially reduce the debate on ISIS to an unhelpful zero-sum game of Islamic/unIslamic. The label of “Islam(ic)” in the case of ISIS might be better appreciated as what James Scott in Domination and the Arts of Resistance would call a “hidden transcript” that is now made public. Scott writes about how the oppressed hew to “public transcripts” that might appear as their contented resignation to the status quo. But when they are able to avoid detection, the dominated employ “hidden transcripts” (like dragging one’s feet) to quietly subvert that same status quo.

But what happens when the dominated no longer want their hidden transcript to remain hidden?

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The Master Writer of the City

Malcolm_2-042315_jpg_600x763_q85Janet Malcolm at The New York Review of Books:

Images that “stand for something” recur throughout Mitchell’s writing and reinforce the sense that we are reading a single metaphoric work about the city. That the author was a southerner only heightens its authority. As Robert Frank’s European sensibility permitted him to see things as he traveled around America that had been invisible to the rest of us, so Mitchell’s outsiderness gave him his own X-ray vision.

Thomas Kunkel’s biography adds some telling details to what Mitchell’s readers already know about his childhood as the eldest son of a prosperous cotton and tobacco grower in North Carolina.* Perhaps the most striking of these is Mitchell’s trouble with arithmetic—he couldn’t add, subtract, or multiply to save his soul—to which handicap we may owe the fact that he became a writer rather than a farmer. As Mitchell recalled late in life:

You know you have to be extremely good at arithmetic. You have to be able to figure, as my father said, to deal with cotton futures, and to buy cotton. You’re in competition with a group of men who will cut your throat at any moment, if they can see the value of a bale of cotton closer than you. I couldn’t do it, so I had to leave.

Mitchell studied at the University of North Carolina without graduating and came to New York in 1929, at the age of twenty-one. Kunkel traces the young exile’s rapid rise from copy boy on the New York World to reporter on the Herald Tribune and feature writer on The World Telegram.

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The Jim Crow Soft-Shoe Segregationists of St. George

Tom Gogola in The Baffler (via Bookforum):

Located Imagein the suburban settlement of St. George, the Mall of Louisiana—and most particularly, the millions in tax revenue it generates—was, until recently, ground zero in a fiercely pitched battle over the economic, political, and racial makeup of Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s capital city. This May, the Baton Rouge city council voted to annex the mall firmly within the city’s borders—thus claiming for the majority-black city one of the key economic prizes that had been in the sights of a new cohort of affluent (and mostly white) would-be municipal secessionists. But that setback for the region’s secessionist forces is unlikely to slow the momentum of their movement, which thrives on a powerful compound of free-market development stratagems, movement-conservative swagger, and new-millennial racial animus…

Throughout the South, rich municipalities have begun to raise the specter of secession—despite the associations that carry over from the last big push by a privileged white Southern elite to carve out a brave new civic destiny for itself, during the years 1861 to 1865. Similar movements to inaugurate breakaway townships and school districts have lately taken off in Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama.

But the St. George effort is different. For starters, it furnishes a detailed case study in how the unvarnished rhetoric of white reaction has been repackaged as a sunny faith in the mystical healing powers of school choice. And it has drawn a corps of politically prominent supporters who are long-standing entrepreneurs of far-right reaction.

Read the rest here.

How the subconscious mind shapes creative writing

Charlotte Seager in The Guardian:

BrainDo you remember those plastic slide puzzles you used to get in party bags? They were made up of a three by three grid with eight tiles and a blank square – the missing tile allowing you to move the others around. This nine-grid puzzle was the central image behind the story of Mark Haddon’s The Red House – although, bizarrely, he didn’t know it when he wrote the book. “I was being interviewed by Claire Armitstead at the Edinburgh Books Festival when she said that when she read the book she kept thinking about those tile puzzles,” wrote Haddon on his blog after the interview.

“I felt a lurch, because before writing The Red House I’d given up on a novel called The Missing Square, the central image of which was one of those tile puzzles, and whose organising conceit was that certain absences may make a world imperfect, but they enable that world to change and generate new meanings. I suddenly realised this image had remained a model for the central structure of The Red House, which is a story about the eight remaining members of a family and a ninth member – a stillborn daughter – who is still having a profound effect on the family despite, or because of, her absence.” This hidden structure enabled Haddon to plot and plan his novel around a central theme without even realising it. Unusual, but perhaps not unheard of, this got me thinking: how many other novelists have plotted their books subconsciously? Perhaps another subconscious plotter is John Boyne, who wrote the first draft of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in just three days and is known for writing without planning. I caught up with him to see how much of his writing he puts down to hidden thoughts.

More here.

The Mind of Those Who Kill, and Kill Themselves

Erica Goode in The New York Times:

AndreHe was described, in the immediate aftermath of the Germanwings crash, as a cheerful and careful pilot, a young man who had dreamed of flying since boyhood. But in the days since, it has seemed increasingly clear that Andreas Lubitz, 27, the plane’s co-pilot, was something far more sinister: the perpetrator of one of the worst mass murder-suicides in history.If what researchers have learned about such crimes is any indication, this notoriety may have been just what Mr. Lubitz wanted. The actions now attributed to Mr. Lubitz — taking 149 unsuspecting people with him to a horrifying death — seem in some ways unfathomable, and his full motives may never be fully understood. But studies over the last decades have begun to piece together characteristics that many who carry out such violence seem to share, among them a towering narcissism, a strong sense of grievance and a desire for infamy.

…Serious mental illness, studies of mass killers suggest, is a prime driver in a minority of cases — about 20 percent, according to estimates by several experts. Far more common are distortions of personality — excesses of rage, paranoia, grandiosity, thirst for vengeance or pathological narcissism and callousness. “The typical personality attribute in mass murderers is one of paranoid traits plus massive disgruntlement,” said Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist in New York who recently completed a study of 228 mass killers, many of whom also killed themselves. “They want to die, but to bring many others down with them, whether co-workers, bosses, family members or just plain folk who are in the vicinity.” Mr. Lubitz, Dr. Stone noted, now ranks among the deadliest of mass killers, in a league with Adilson Marcelino Alves, who in 1961 killed as many as 500 people in a circus fire in Brazil, or Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, who killed 168 people and injured more than 680 others.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

My Tongue Softens on the Other Name

In my mother’s backyard washing snaps
above chillies and wild rosemary.
Kapokbos, cottonwool bush, my tongue softens
on the rosemary’s other name.
Brinjal, red peppers and paw-paw grow
in the narrow channel between
the kitchen and the wall that divides
our house from the Severos. At the edge
of the grass by the bedrooms, a witolyf reaches
ecstatically for the power lines.

In a corner in the lee of the house,
nothing grows.
Sound falls here.
Early in the day shadows wash
over old tiles stacked
against the cement wall.
In the cold and silence
my brother is making a garden.

He clears gravel from the soil
and lays it against the back wall.
Bright spokes of pincushion proteas puncture a rockery.
For hours he scrapes into a large stone a hollow to catch
water from a tap that has dripped all my life.
Around it, botterblom slowly reddens the grey sand.
A fence made of reed filters
the wind between the wall and the house.
Ice-daisies dip their tufted heads
toward its shadows.

At night, on an upturned paint tin, he sits
in the presence of growing things.
Light wells over the rim of the stone basin
and collects itself into the moon.
Everything is finding its place.
by Gabeba Baderoon
from Illuminations: An International Magazine of Contemporary Writing
Rathasker Press, Charleston

An Atheist Considers God’s Plan

by Akim Reinhardt

Oprah quote“It's all part of God's plan.”

That's bad enough. But I go a little nuts whenever someone says: “Everything happens for a reason.”

After all, if you actually believe that we're all just mortal puppets dancing on a divine string, then there's really no point in us having an adult conversation about cause and effect.

But unlike God's plan, “Everything happens for a reason” does not suggest a deep detachment from reality, which is precisely what makes it far more exasperating than assertions of, say, childhood leukemia being an important cog in God's grand machinations.

Rather than embracing wild delusion or concocting a fantastic blend of paternal benevolence and cruelty, “everything happens for a reason” suggests a far murkier and depressing version of surrendering reality. Like the “God's plan” adage, it indicates the speaker just can't live up to the horrors of life, and is wont to soothe oneself with the balm of inevitability. But it also leads me to suspect that while the speaker is sane enough to dismiss sadistically intricate divine plans, s/he has been reduced to hiding behind the gauze of unstated and unknowable “reasons.”

Everything happens for a reason.

In other words, even the worst of it can be justified, even if we don't know how.

To say childhood leukemia is part of God's plan is to give that reason a name. Specifically, God's plan is how one justifies the horror. That's pretty awful.

But to say childhood leukemia happens for a vague, unnamed reason is to accept that it's justified in some way, but to not know what the justification is. That seems even worse.

Both proverbs, to my mind, are patently dishonest sentiments. But while I can easily dismiss the former as delusion in the face of pain, the latter reveals just enough self-awareness to anger me.

God's plan is the refuge of those who, unable to face up to harsh realities, opt for fantasy. But to recognize that childhood-leukemia-as-God's-plan is a form of lunacy, yet hide your own weak-kneed desperation behind claims of “reason,” is really insulting. It's one thing to dismiss rational thought altogether when attempting to face life's horrors. It's quite another to bastardize and mangle rational thought to create a shield against life's horrors.

Or so it seemed to me when I first considered these aphorisms.

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Pygmalion and Supersymmetry

by Tasneem Zehra Husain

6a019b00fed410970b01bb081709cc970d-500wiSome myths seep so deep into popular culture, that even those who are not aware of the origins of a legend, know the story. Few of us have read Ovid's original account of the Cypriot sculptor, Pygmalion, who carved a beautiful woman out of ivory, and proceeded to fall so deeply in love with Galatea, as he called her, that the goddess Aphrodite took pity on him and breathed life into the statue. But, even in our ignorance of Greek classics, the basic motifs of this story are familiar from countless retellings through the ages. Whether it is a fairy tale like Pinnochio, or – in a more contemporary twist – a play by George Bernard Shaw, the theme remains the same: can you fall so completely in love with your own creation, that you blur the boundaries of reality? Can you make something come alive, just by wanting it badly enough?

After a two year pause, the LHC is turning on again. Once more, beams of protons will run circles around the giant ring, miles under Geneva, speeding up with each lap, until they are made to collide head-on, unleashing energies to rival those that prevailed seconds after the Big Bang. In the earlier run, when the Higgs boson was discovered, the LHC attained collision energies in the 7 – 8 TeV range. This time, the goal is to reach the 13 – 14 TeV range, and explore realms that have never before been accessible. Couched within the excitement of probing the unknown, are our desires for what we want to see emerge from the data. There are several theories we would like to see proved, but if I had to choose a single contender, I'd vote for supersymmetry (SUSY; pronounced Susie) – as would many others. There are, of course some dissenting voices in the crowd; those who say we have already hung on to the hope of supersymmetry for too long, that some experimental evidence of it should have turned up by now, if the theory was correct. These critics level the allegation that supersymmetry is in fact just a theoretical construction, but that some of us are so enamored of its beauty, and so keen to see this mathematical model ‘come to life', that we have lost touch with reality.

The fact that most physicists do tend to wax lyrical about this theory, is indisputable. “I love supersymmetry. It is a very canonical theory”, says Fabiola Gianotti, the soon to be Director General of CERN. Peter Higgs, after whom the famous boson was named, has declared himself “a fan” and Stephen Hawking, one of the most recognizable icons of our time, says we might see traces of supersymmetry at the LHC, if we're lucky, and that “the discovery of supersymmetric partners for the known particles revolutionize our understanding of the universe.” In short, so many physicists want so desperately to see this theory realized, that one could perhaps be excused for wondering if we are contemporary Pygmalions, and SUSY our Galatea. Are we trying to bring it into being by sheer force of will?

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Rosemary tea, miso butter, and other kitchen snippets

by Rishidev Chaudhuri

ScreenHunter_1123 Apr. 06 11.18I

As I grow older and worldlier, and as the world itself grows more worldly, an increasingly wide range of ingredients and techniques and flavors take up residence in my kitchen. The flavors of my childhood were primarily those of the subcontinent, dominated by the Indian Ocean cities of Calcutta, Colombo and Bombay, and by European food mediated through England, Calcutta and the colonial mixing. And it is sobering to contemplate that there was a point when soy sauce didn’t consistently inhabit my kitchen (a few years in a vegetarian co-op in Massachusetts and a semester in Japan changed that), or to remember that fish sauce and various vinegars didn’t always occupy prominent roles in my culinary imagination. I’ve always known about chilies, of course; I imagine that growing up in another culinary tradition and discovering chilies must be like discovering some fundamental metaphysical truth about the world, perhaps one that you’d always known must exist, perhaps one that must exist in all possible worlds.

Some will lament the loss of local particularity that goes with such increasing cosmopolitanism, and that is indeed worth a mournful moment of silence. But, inevitably, these world-traveling ingredients strike up conversations and more in the pantry (I discovered the herring passionately intertwined with the curry leaves one long lazy afternoon), and spark improbable but delightful culinary revelations.

The combination of fermented soy beans and butter is a revelation. It is not traditional and, depending on the vividness of your imagination, might seem transgressive. At the least, the cultures that love them are separate, with soy sauce, miso and the fermented bean pastes concentrated in East Asia, and butter spread through the rest of the world with a special concentration in parts of Europe and India[1]. They are also distinctive and easily identifiable as foundational elements of their associated cuisines: “butter” and “soy” are almost caricatures of how one might describe, say, the opposition between French and Chinese food.

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Give The Pentagon Budget To The People: A Wish That One Day Will Be Fulfilled

by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash

ImagesEvery now and then I think of something crazy.

Like why don't we taxpayers sue Walmart for the $6.2 billion we have to supply to their workers in foodstamps and other help because Walmart doesn't pay its employees enough to live on?

Or why doesn't Obama, instead of paying out unemployment insurance, use that money to give to the unemployed some well-paid government jobs — to say, fix our crumbling infrastructure (bridges, roads, energy grid, etc.) or install solar panels on all our buildings to make us less dependent on oil?

Or why don't we as a country get rid of student debt by simply writing it off? And then find the money for free college education for everyone who want to go to college.

Where would we find that money to pay for free college for all Americans?

Well, by means of my latest foray into wish-fulfillment thinking: why don't we take the entire Pentagon budget that gets spent on new weaponry and divert it to pay for college educations for everyone or for free pre-K education to kids or something equally worthwhile?

Or why don't we reduce the entire Pentagon budget by 80% and use that money for socially useful purposes?

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Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and The Ethics of Memory

by Leanne Ogasawara

TJ-luxury-full1An elderly couple embark on a quest. Wandering the countryside in which a mysterious mist has robbed everyone of their memories, the two are unable to recall exactly what they are doing at any given moment. This makes for a challenge since they know they are on a quest– but it is never completely clear where they are going and what exactly happened in the first place.

And what is made even worse than being on a quest where you can't keep the facts straight is that each wonders whether their loss of memory will not mark the end of their marriage–for without shared memories, what will be left to bind them together? The elderly wife wonders. But at the same time, she also cannot help but worry whether in reality they are not better off not remembering?

In the early pages of Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, I assumed it would be a very different story. Like this reviewer here, at first I was sure the book would be about the sadness of a life ending in memory loss; about dementia in the elderly and love falling apart. But then (also just like the reviewer) I wondered if the novel wasn't actually some kind of exploration about the myth-making we do collectively –for indeed, it is not just the elderly couple but all the characters in the book who are suffering from memory loss as they struggle to recall what it means, for example, to be a Christian Briton or pagan Saxon, in the wake of the Roman withdrawal.

Is it glorious King Arthur or Arthur the mass murderer?

It all depends on how you remember things, right?

A coincidence (or maybe he is reading the same book) but a friend on Facebook (deliciously literary Mikhail Iossel) today wrote this:

We all know, or at least suspect, that many of the memories dearest to our hearts have never happened. To a considerable degree, our lives are the products of our own imagination — for that's what memory is, by and large: an introspective, inward-bound imagination.

It's true, but then what to do in the face of trauma? Ishiguro in several interviews wrote of wanting to write about Rwanda or Yugoslavia. He wondered how it was possible that groups of people, who up till then had been living in relative harmony, turn so savagely upon each other? What kinds of repressed hatred had to be cultivated over the years (or generations) within them, he asks. And likewise, what of our personal traumas?

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The Magic of the Bell and a Glimpse of Spirits

by Bill Benzon

Call it “animism” if you wish, but it will no longer be enough to brand it with the mark of infamy. This is indeed why we feel so close to the sixteenth century, as if we were back before the “epistemological break,” before the odd invention of matter.

—Bruno Latour, An Attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto”

This essay starts with an experience I had some years ago in a basement in Troy, New York, while rehearsing with three colleagues: Ade (who had toured with Gil Scott-Heron in his youth), Druis, and Fonda. We were each of us playing bells when at some point we heard high-pitched twittering sounds that none of us were playing. Where did they come from? What were they?

I can easily imagine how someone might think they were hearing a spirit or spirits. The Western scientific impulse is quite different. We know that spirits do not exist and therefore there must be some other, some physically plausible, account of those twittering sounds. My purpose here is not to reject the physical account. On the contrary, I believe it to be foundational. But I also believe that, carefully considered, it points to a way of making sense of the idea of spirit.

Instrument and Player

It is well known that B.B. King’s guitar is named Lucille. Why is it named at all? Perhaps it’s a gesture of affection. The guitar, after all, is very close to him. It is one of his voices; it is, in some sense, part of him.

It may be more than that. The name may well reflect the subtle intricacy of King’s relationship to his guitar, his instrument. To play an instrument well, one must learn to yield to its physicality, to blend with it. You cannot dominate it. Well, you can try, and you CAN succeed. But you pay a cost. Your musicianship suffers.

As I’m not a guitar player, however, I can’t tell you what it means to yield to a guitar. I suppose I could talk about the trumpet—I’ve been playing one for half a century—but that’s just a little complex. And my point really isn’t about complexity. It’s about subtlety.

Let us begin by talking about playing a very simple instrument, the claves.

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