ARE LIBERALS ON THE WRONG SIDE OF HISTORY?

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

ScreenHunter_2645 Mar. 27 09.28Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest. It is the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it. If the West has broken down the Berlin Wall and McDonald’s opens in St. Petersburg, then history is over and Thomas Friedman is content. If, by a margin so small that in a voice vote you would have no idea who won, Brexit happens; or if, by a trick of an antique electoral system designed to give country people more power than city people, a Donald Trump is elected, then pluralist constitutional democracy is finished. The liberal millennium was upon us as the year 2000 dawned; fifteen years later, the autocratic apocalypse is at hand. Thomas Friedman is concerned.

You would think that people who think for a living would pause and reflect that whatever is happening usually does stop happening, and something else happens in its place; a baby who is crying now will stop crying sooner or later. Exhaustion, or a change of mood, or a passing sound, or a bright light, something, always happens next. But for the parents the wait can feel the same as forever, and for many pundits, too, now is the only time worth knowing, for now is when the baby is crying and now is when they’re selling your books.

And so the death-of-liberalism tomes and eulogies are having their day, with the publishers who bet on apocalypse rubbing their hands with pleasure and the ones who gambled on more of the same weeping like, well, babies. Pankaj Mishra, in “Age of Anger” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), focusses on the failures of what is sometimes called “neoliberalism”—i.e., free-market fundamentalism—and, more broadly, on the failure of liberal élites around the world to address the perpetual problem of identity, the truth that men and women want to be members of a clan or country with values and continuities that stretch beyond merely material opportunity. Joel Mokyr’s “A Culture of Growth” (Princeton) is an attempt to answer the big question: Why did science and technology (and, with them, colonial power) spread west to east in the modern age, instead of another way around? His book, though drier than the more passionate polemics, nimbly suggests that the postmodern present is powered by the same engines as the early-modern past. In “Homo Deus” (HarperCollins), Yuval Noah Harari offers an elegy for the end of the liberal millennium, which he sees as giving way to post-humanism: the coming of artificial intelligence that may leave us contented and helpless, like the Eloi in H. G. Wells’s “Time Machine.” Certainly, the anti-liberals, or, in Harari’s case, post-humanists, have much the better of the rhetorical energy and polemical brio. They slash and score. The case against the anti-liberals can be put only slowly and with empirical caution. The tortoise is not merely a slow runner but an ugly one. Still, he did win the race.

More here.

Doing the write thing: Angie Thomas

Afua Hirsch in The Guardian:

UntitledIf a spaceship landed in northern Texas and beamed every adolescent within a 50-mile radius into its desolate interior, the scene would look a lot like what now lies in front of me. It’s difficult to believe there are any teenagers in north Texas not currently forming orderly queues at the Las Colinas conference centre – a formidably angular set of slabs in the Texan wasteland. Yet among the lines of young readers at the North Texas Teen Book Festival, their arms cradling impractical numbers of books, and the row of authors signing on an industrial scale, one woman stands out. Angie Thomas, one of the youngest writers in the place, is one black face in a sea of white. She’s upbeat, her hair tied with a perky bow, and when a fan says she looks “so pretty” in a top that combines a hood with sheer lace panels, she laughs and says “thank you” in a Mississippi accent whose vowels are so many notes, it’s a beguiling song. She fingers the garment. “My friend called it Thug Life with a feminine twist.” However you interpret that description, it will mean something different after reading Thomas’s book, the recently released The Hate U Give. She’s a 29-year-old woman from Jackson who has written a novel that is a strident and utterly compelling march into the most sensitive and contentious subjects in America today: race, privilege and the killings of unarmed black people at the hands of the police. And she has done so for the young adult fiction scene – the popular “YA” genre still best known for Harry Potter and the Twilight trilogy. Among these overwhelmingly white adolescents in suburban Texas, the book has completely sold out and will, a few days later, debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s a publishing miracle.

The Hate U Give tells the story of Starr, a 16-year-old black girl who lives in inner-city America in a neighbourhood that is poor and black, but goes to school in a suburb that is affluent and white. At home, Starr’s loving and protective parents usher their children into a room they call the “den” not just to watch basketball games, but to shield them from the machine gun fire that frequently erupts on the street outside. One night Starr and her childhood friend Khalil are driving home from a party when they are pulled over by police. Khalil, who is unarmed, is made to get out of the vehicle, and an officer – who later claims he mistook the boy’s hairbrush for a gun –shoots and kills him, traumatising Starr.

More here.

The Wisdom of the Aging Brain

Anil Ananthaswamy in Nautilus:

Aging_8bf0f5b933338cb9b11ff56496e6f56fAt the 2010 Cannes Film Festival premiere of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, director Woody Allen was asked about aging. He replied with his characteristic, straight-faced pessimism. “I find it a lousy deal. There is no advantage in getting older. I’m 74 now. You don’t get smarter, you don’t get wiser … Your back hurts more, you get more indigestion … It’s a bad business, getting old. I’d advise you not to do it if you can avoid it.” Creaking bones and bad digestion notwithstanding, is that really the only face of aging? Turns out, it’s not. At least for the fortunate few, old age may not be Woody Allenesque; instead old age is when they become compassionate and wise. Yes, wise.

While aging diminishes activity in certain brain regions, there’s tantalizing evidence this may be compensated by changes in brain regions associated with supportive and social behavior. This shift in brain activity may foster wisdom in some people, a way of being that moves one away from self-centeredness toward emotional equanimity and wider social consciousness. We may even be able to work toward wisdom in old age. For millennia, philosophers and theologians have been preoccupied with the notion of wisdom (the Greek word philosophia means “love of wisdom”). Centuries before the Greeks got into the act, the religious traditions of India and China, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism, were thinking about wisdom, emphasizing the regulation of emotion—or emotional balance—as key to it. Aristotle delineated wisdom into two types. One was the general, god-like, all-knowing wisdom, and the second (more pertinent to us mere mortals) was something called phronesis, or practical wisdom, which is the ability to be discerning about one’s actions, knowing when and why to act in a pragmatic manner. Ideally, such wise actions—whether involving emotion regulation or reasoning—would balance self-interest against the interests of others and those of society in general.

More here.

Sunday Poem

In Broken Images

He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.

He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images,

Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact,
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.
.

by Robert Graves
from To Read a Poem
Edited by Donald Hall
Harcourt Brace, 1992

PANKAJ MISHRA: WE COMMITTED INTELLECTUAL SUICIDE AFTER 9/11

Rafia Zakaria in Literary Hub:

Pankaj-Mishra-Age-of-AngerHistorian and intellectual Pankaj Mishra’s latest book Age of Anger: A History of the Present, published earlier this month, presents what Mishra calls “an emotional history” at a time of “worldwide emergency” when rage fills the global political sphere. Mishra locates the core of our chaotic condition in the Nietzchean concept of “ressentiment,” a creative force that animates the rebellion of the poorest and most disenfranchised against the ruling class. It is this very force, Mishra argues, that is animating those most marginalized, its power whetted by the contradiction between the equality promised in prose and exalted in rhetoric but never delivered in reality.

Mishra recently traveled to the United States, during the pause between President Trump’s first travel ban on the citizens of seven Muslim countries, and all refugees, and the striking down of his new one. A few days after we spoke, the President’s new budget pledged to do away with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. The budget for the U.S. State Department is to be slashed while the U.S. Defense budget will be augmented by billions of dollars. It certainly seems that the world is at the brink of even more war, more destruction, more displacement, and more turning away. In our conversation, Mishra and I spoke about the prescience of Age of Anger and his framing of our bleak and divided global moment.

Rafia Zakaria: The very first page of your book describes its stages of production: beginning at Modi, writing through Brexit and published with the election of Donald Trump. When you were at the beginning of this intellectual journey, did you foresee how it would proceed, both in terms of the books and the politics it aspires to explain?

Pankaj Mishra: I wish I could claim that kind of prescience. I knew that things were going very wrong in Europe and that inequality was an issue in the U.S. I did not know Brexit would happen or that Donald Trump would be elected. I just thought that there would be very large number of people who would vote for him, but I hoped that not enough would go as far as actually electing a maniac and a troll to the White House. I wrote my book obviously taking into account the state of dissatisfaction, but I could not predict the political outcome.

More here.

Neanderthal Dental Plaque Shows What a Paleo Diet Really Looks Like

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

Lead_960Neanderthal dental plaque is a precious commodity, so it’s a little embarrassing when you’re trying to dislodge a piece and it goes flying across the room. “We just stood still, and everyone’s like: Where is it? Where is it?” recalls Laura Weyrich from the University of Adelaide. “Usually, we try to wrap the skull in foil and work underneath it, but that time, the foil didn’t happen to cover a small area.”

Weyrich and her team of unorthodox dentists eventually found the wayward plaque, and recovered similar samples from the skulls of five Neanderthals. Each was once a colony of microbes, growing on a tooth. But over tens of thousands of years, they had hardened into small, brittle pieces of rock. Still, each nugget contained DNA—from the microbes, and also from whatever the Neanderthals had eaten.

By harvesting and sequencing that DNA, Weyrich has shown that there was no such thing as a typical Neanderthal diet. One individual from Spy cave in Belgium mostly ate meat like woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep, as well as some edible mushrooms. But two individuals who lived in El Sidrón cave in Spain seemed to be entirely vegetarian. The team couldn’t find any traces of meat in their diet, which consisted of mushrooms, pine nuts, tree bark, and moss. The Belgian Neanderthals hunted; the Spanish ones foraged.

More here.

INTERVIEW: Basharat Peer on Turkey, India and the new populism

William Armstrong in Hurriyet Daily News:

N_111198_1The Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the India of Narendra Modi are seen as pioneers of a new style of populism. Both President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Modi tap into a simmering reservoir of resentment, historical injury and frustration, directing anger against domestic and foreign “enemies of the people.” With the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president and the specter of resurgent nationalism haunting Europe, identity populism seems to capture the spirit of the age.

“A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen” by Basharat Peer, a New York Times journalist who grew up in Indian Kashmir, is a slim but illuminating book exploring the parallels between Erdoğan’s Turkey and Modi’s India.

Peer spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about reporting for the book (reviewed in HDN here), modernization and secularism in Turkey and India, and comparisons between the Kashmir and Kurdish issues.

How and when did you get the idea of writing a book about the direction of these two countries?

I was working in India, writing for various magazines and thinking hard about Modi. I was thinking of doing a whole book about majoritarian politics in India. The rise of Modi was a seminal event in the modern political history of India. There was this man with an extremely controversial past who nobody thought could be prime minister. But he made his moves very well and the old elite was dysfunctional, crumbling and corrupt. Modi was a new challenger who came from one of the richest states, Gujurat, and gave this sense that he was a very competent administrator who knew how to make India shine. But there was blood on his hands: The allegations of his involvement in the massacre of more than a thousand Muslims in Gujurat. It was the biggest televised pogrom in contemporary India and it happened under Modi’s watch. It was very troubling to see Modi gain acceptability, rising to power saying things like: "To run this country you need a 56-inch chest." He had a sense of masculinity and vigor and used his Hindu nationalist credentials to win votes. As all populists do, you use a target or an out group – an ethnic or religious minority that you don't like. In the Indian case it was the Indian Muslims.

One day I was talking to my old teacher at Columbia University, Nicholas Lemann, who was starting a new series of short books. We started talking about Modi and we realized that we were not just talking about one man, but a trend in this crisis of liberal democracy. Figures like Modi don't come from aristocratic origins. They come from the neglected periphery, from humble origins, but use their personal charisma and the historic moment they find themselves in, and often use majoritarian politics and a certain talk about love for the markets and corporate governance.

More here.

NOVEL SPIRITS: GEORGE SAUNDERS GOES LONG

Lincoln-in-the-bardoBarrett Hathcock at The Quarterly Conversation:

Novels by short story writers (let’s pretend for a moment that these categories aren’t porous) often feel too long, yet not long enough. One type is like John Cheever’s TheWapshot Chronicle, a collection of linked narratives that aren’t independent enough to be stories yet not connected enough to accumulate into a cohesive narrative. It feels like a bag of marbles rather than a marble sculpture. The other type of story-writer novel is the overbuilt birdhouse: a structure with an extreme amount of planning in which not much actually happens.

Which brings us to George Saunders, arguably the preeminent American story writer of our day. This post of pre-eminent, living story writer is like the Presidency. Only one person can occupy it at a time, and sadly that person is usually male. The requirements of this office are not just writing good stories. And make no mistake, Saunders writes excellent stories. This person must be iconoclastic. He must have imitators, and boy, does Saunders have imitators. This is not his fault. He is very successful at his own shtick, but that shtick contains enough easily identifiable characteristics that younger writers—willingly or not—can imitate him. It’s to Saunders’s credit that vast swaths of contemporary American writing look like Saunders’s discards. Many writers have made entire careers out of being Diet Saunders. I’m not going to name names. Just throw in an absurd premise set slightly in the future, a premise that seems to comment somewhat ironically on our late-capitalistic quagmire, throw in some lightly magical phenomena that function as heavy-handed metaphors, and maybe a pinch of moral allegory, all wrapped up in a heart-on-sleeve-be-kind-rewind sincerity, and you’ve got yourself a sub-Saunders story. And I say all this as someone who finds Saunders’s aesthetic terribly alluring, as someone who has written these stories myself.

more here.

‘Compass’ by Mathias Enard is brilliant and frustrating

41aeawfJZiLJustin Taylor at the LA Times:

If Scheherazade and Proust are the novel’s East and West, its North and South are W.G. Sebald (erudite melancholia) and Thomas Bernhard (a blitzkrieg of spleen). Elsewhere on the crowded face of “Compass’ ” compass rose we find Borges, Pessoa, Xavier de Maistre, Sadegh Hedayat (“the greatest Iranian prose-writer of the twentieth century, the darkest, the funniest, the nastiest”), Balzac, T.E. Lawrence, Robert Musil, Napoleon, Berlioz, Liszt, Beethoven, Felicien David, Edward Said. To name a few. Every page is packed with biographical sketches, intellectual histories and lost episodes from the long, complicated, abusive romance that the West has for centuries been waging on the East.

Enard was wise to write about academics rather than, say, artists. Where the latter must obscure or sublimate their influences, the former are free to simply cite. If “Compass” had an index (more’s the pity that it doesn’t) you could use it as the syllabus for a PhD program. In fact, one conceit of the novel is that Ritter is writing (or imagining he might write) a work of scholarship (or a satire of a work of scholarship) to be called “On the Divers Forms of Lunacie in the Orient,” which is (at least in part) the novel we are reading, or it would have been if Ritter had written any of it down.

more here.

From Camille Paglia, ‘Free Women, Free Men’ and No Sacred Cows

24BOOKPAGLIASUB1-master180Dwight Garner at the New York Times:

One reason Paglia gets under people’s skin is that she has no sacred cows. Reviewing “Break, Blow, Burn” in The New York Times Book Review, Clive James got at why she made some readers uncomfortable.

“The most threatening thing about her, from the American viewpoint, is that she refuses to treat the arts as an instrument of civil rights,” he wrote. “Without talent, no entitlement.”

It’s worth recalling how good Paglia can be, because in between major books, she does her best to help you forget. Her essay collections — “Sex, Art, and American Culture” (1992), “Vamps & Tramps” (1994) and now this one — display her worst qualities (we will get to these), which swamp her obvious intellect.

The pieces in “Free Women, Free Men” have two primary targets. One is modern feminism, at least the spongy wing of it she considers to be puritanical and man-bashing. Here is the tightest and liveliest summation of her position I can find in this book:

“Women will never know who they are until they let men be men. Let’s get rid of Infirmary Feminism, with its bedlam of bellyachers, anorexics, bulimics, depressives, rape victims and incest survivors. Feminism has become a catchall vegetable drawer where bunches of clingy sob sisters can store their moldy neuroses.”

more here.

Once an illiterate shepherd, this palestinian researcher hopes to cure cancer

Smadar Reisfeld in Haaretz:

AyubHere’s a legend for the modern era: Until the age of 12, Nabieh Ayoub could neither read nor write. Officially, he attended school in the Upper Galilee village of Fassuta, but mostly he helped his family till the land and herd the sheep. Today he is a biology professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, and a highly praised cancer researcher. In 2014, an article he published in the prestigious PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science) was selected by the journal as being among the top 5 percent of the articles appearing in its pages that year. His is a riveting, thought-provoking and also somewhat ironic story about excellence, prejudice and education. But above all, about science. That’s what’s most important to Ayoub, and that’s what he wanted to talk about most, when I met with him at his Technion office. Prof. Ayoub, who’s in his forties, is married to Samahar Najjar, an educational consultant by profession. The couple live in Haifa with their three children, aged 8, 12 and 14. “Nabieh” means “cautious” in Arabic, and that definitely suits his personality. He’s very cordial and sociable, unpretentious and candid, but cautious.

How is it that you couldn’t read or write until such a late age?

“That’s a good question. I think schooling didn’t mean much to me then. I would go to school, warm the bench and return home. I preferred helping my father, who was a fellah, working in the fields or tending the goats. I couldn’t even write my name. I was diagnosed as having special needs and placed in a special-ed class. The teachers were amazed that I was so dumb, because my four siblings were all very good in school. Things weren’t easy socially, either, because the good students tended to stay away from me. Who wants to be around an imbecile? When you’re categorized as weak, you have to make an effort to carve out a path to be accepted by those who are strong.”

When did the change occur?

“I had a homeroom teacher, Ayoub Shahla, who took me to the teachers’ room during recess and taught me. He proceeded gradually, little by little, until I knew the letters, and then I learned how to read and write. A decisive event for me was a speech delivered by the principal at the start of the school year, when I was in the eighth grade. He said that those who are weak can improve, and cited me as an example. All he did was mention my name, but that generated a huge self-transformation. You have to understand: All in all, I had progressed from marks of 20-30 to 50, but the fact that he made reference to it had a tremendous influence on me. That was the beginning of the spurt.”

… DNA under attack

For the past decade, Ayoub has been researching the structure of DNA and the mechanisms that repair it when it’s damaged. The fact is that DNA – the molecule that carries our genes and is responsible for our traits, abilities, functioning and health – is under constant attack. Every day, the DNA in a cell that is dividing is vulnerable to some 70,000 different types of damage – and that’s before we factor in smoking, exposure to solar radiation, food preservatives and other nasty items that exacerbate the damage. The basic harm is caused by by-products of regular life processes, which attack the cell’s DNA. These include the notorious free radicals, which we’re meant to neutralize through the consumption of antioxidants.

More here.