Gary Krist in the Washington Post:
Being one of the premier literary figures of your generation can be a lonely business. Just ask Ernest Hemingway. According to Hadley Richardson, the author’s first wife, Hemingway always had trouble finding friends he could connect with “on his level, and with the same interests.” But there was one notable exception: “John Dos Passos,” she once told an interviewer, “was one of the few people . . . whom Ernest could really talk to.”
Certainly the two writers had a few significant things in common. Both born in Chicago, they each served a formative stint as an ambulance driver in Europe during World War I, distilling the experience into war novels that helped shape the postwar American consciousness. And for several decades around the mid-1900s, both would have appeared on virtually any critic’s list of the greatest American novelists of the century.
But there the similarities ended. Dos Passos, who was born out of wedlock, grew up in a series of European hotel rooms and was educated at Choate and Harvard. Sickly and physically awkward, he wore thick eyeglasses, spoke with a stutter and was never much of a ladies’ man. Hemingway, the product of a much more stable and conventional Midwestern family, never went to college but always exuded an intellectual confidence and insouciant athleticism that made him a great favorite with the opposite sex. Dos Passos was a lifelong political activist, while Hemingway (with one or two exceptions) typically steered clear of movements and causes. Books by Dos Passos seldom sold well; books by Hemingway seldom didn’t. And yet, as James McGrath Morris illustrates in his trim and absorbing new book, somehow the two writers managed to maintain an intense, often competitive friendship over many years — until one major disagreement in the 1930s tore them apart, leaving behind a bitterness that lasted until Hemingway’s suicide in 1961.
Gillian B. White in The Atlantic:
A lot of factors have contributed to American inequality: slavery, economic policy, technological change, the power of lobbying, globalization, and so on. In their wake, what’s left?
That’s the question at the heart of a new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, by Peter Temin, an economist from MIT. Temin argues that, following decades of growing inequality, America is now left with what is more or less a two-class system: One small, predominantly white upper class that wields a disproportionate share of money, power, and political influence and a much larger, minority-heavy (but still mostly white) lower class that is all too frequently subject to the first group’s whims.
Temin identifies two types of workers in what he calls “the dual economy.” The first are skilled, tech-savvy workers and managers with college degrees and high salaries who are concentrated heavily in fields such as finance, technology, and electronics—hence his labeling it the “FTE sector.” They make up about 20 percent of the roughly 320 million people who live in America. The other group is the low-skilled workers, which he simply calls the “low-wage sector.”
Ed Yong in The Atlantic:
In the classical view of cancer, a cell picks up mutations until it shakes off the checks and balances that restrain its growth, allowing it to divide uncontrollably and turn into a tumor. This linear process is a macabre version of that famous image where a chimp walks to the right and gradually morphs into a human hunter. And both visuals are wrong. In reality, tumors quickly become seething masses of varied cells, all with their own mutations. One area might start growing faster; its neighbor might come to evade the immune system. Over time, the fittest lineages produce more descendants and rise to dominance—the essence of Darwinian natural selection. So forget the linear march. The better visual is that of a tree, with an initial trunk radiating into a web of branches. In 1837, Charles Darwin drew one such tree in one of his notebooks to represent how species evolve from a common ancestor. He could just as easily have been sketching the birth of a tumor.
This realization goes some way to explaining why the war against cancer has been so entrenched and unexpectedly difficult. Clinicians often diagnose these diseases by taking a biopsy from a tumor, but a single sample could miss important mutations with very different prognostic implications just centimeters away. And when we hit tumors with drugs or radiation, we create a potent source of artificial selection, effectively breeding for hardier tumors. That’s why relapses occur.
David Remnick in The New Yorker:
On April 29th, Donald Trump will have occupied the Oval Office for a hundred days. For most people, the luxury of living in a relatively stable democracy is the luxury of not following politics with a nerve-racked constancy. Trump does not afford this. His Presidency has become the demoralizing daily obsession of anyone concerned with global security, the vitality of the natural world, the national health, constitutionalism, civil rights, criminal justice, a free press, science, public education, and the distinction between fact and its opposite. The hundred-day marker is never an entirely reliable indicator of a four-year term, but it’s worth remembering that Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama were among those who came to office at a moment of national crisis and had the discipline, the preparation, and the rigor to set an entirely new course. Impulsive, egocentric, and mendacious, Trump has, in the same span, set fire to the integrity of his office.
Trump has never gone out of his way to conceal the essence of his relationship to the truth and how he chooses to navigate the world. In 1980, when he was about to announce plans to build Trump Tower, a fifty-eight-story edifice on Fifth Avenue and Fifty-sixth Street, he coached his architect before meeting with a group of reporters. “Give them the old Trump bullshit,” he said. “Tell them it’s going to be a million square feet, sixty-eight stories.”
This is the brand that Trump has created for himself—that of an unprincipled, cocky, value-free con who will insult, stiff, or betray anyone to achieve his gaudiest purposes. “I am what I am,” he has said. But what was once a parochial amusement is now a national and global peril. Trump flouts truth and liberal values so brazenly that he undermines the country he has been elected to serve and the stability he is pledged to insure.
Siddhartha Mukherjee in The New Yorker:
When my mother’s mother began to die of a mysterious, undiagnosable neurological illness, the first thing she lost was her sense of taste. For most families, perhaps, this would be a rather inconsequential loss, but this had severe repercussions for us. As the matriarch of our heaving, multi-generational family, she had always helmed the kitchen with an efficient, if somewhat despotic, hand. Because all the food in that household was cooked by her—years earlier, an attempted takeover by one of the uncle’s wives had been swiftly and tyrannically rebuffed—my grandmother was, in fact, the ultimate arbiter of taste. For decades, this had been a relatively stable and blissful arrangement: she was an acutely talented cook. But as her taste buds numbed, week by week, the food turned from mild to well-seasoned to intolerably spicy. It was, perhaps, a kind of neural compensation for her—the way people with early hearing loss often begin to speak more loudly—but the fish curry now went off on the palate like a thermonuclear bomb. The lentils exfoliated the tongue. The fried spinach was an incinerating terror; the okra, an endurance sport. When even the white rice, the final refuge of the Asian tongue, began to arrive at the table with halved Thai bird peppers on top, the seeds squinting above it, we squirmed in terror. But we steeled ourselves and kept eating: numbness begetting numbness.
I want to talk to you today about desensitization. In my other life, I am an oncologist. Numbness, you might say, is my occupational hazard. Over the past month or so, I have watched twelve of my patients die from or relapse with cancer. Yesterday, I heard that a friend who ran my favorite restaurant, the place I went for daily refuge while I was writing my last book, passed away from tongue cancer that had colonized her brain and bones. When interviewers ask me how I carry on carrying on, I speak about the startling successes with some of my patients, about hope and the future. But I do not—I cannot—tell them that a certain kind of numbness must be a part of it. I come home from the bone-marrow-transplant wards on a January morning and play with my dog, rearrange the furniture, and practice polynomial factorization with my daughter. I celebrate a recent laboratory paper with a glass of champagne. I return to the wards the next morning and look down a microscope to find a marrow choked up with leukemia cells after a heroic attempt at salvage chemotherapy. And this cycle repeats. You might say that I have an advanced degree in desensitization. But, of course, I am not here to describe the numbness that accompanies medical practice. There is a different form of desensitization that surrounds us today. When I was asked to give this talk to a roomful of aspiring writers, I had to confront the elephant-in-the-room question: How shall we continue to write in these numbing times?
Fawzia Afzal Khan in The Friday Times:
From the Hamra section of Beirut, one of those must-see areas for tourists, full of cafes and honking cars and far less appealing to me than the beautiful Corniche, after a lunch of grape leaves, tabouleh, spicy potatoes (batataharra) – a favorite of my guide Karim – we set out in his black Toyota Corolla 2016 for Marjayoun. I’m again on one of my obsessive literary journeys, this time to visit the House of Stone built by Anthony Shadid on his ancestral land in the south of Lebanon, an area which used to be largely Christian, but has since become a Shiite stronghold of the Hezbollah party. Shadid, a Lebanese American of Christian background, was a foreign correspondent for the New York Times who won the Pulitzer prize twice for international reporting, having written empathetically about the effects of the Iraqi war on its people, and was attempting to leave Syria in 2012 while covering the contemporary crisis, when he died tragically, supposedly of an asthma attack.
Ever since I read his beautiful, lyrical, haunting memoir about his quest to find his roots in the country his great grandfather migrated to the USA from, I became obsessed with wanting to see this symbol of one man’s determination to recover his past, and the past of his ancestral homeland, in a present riven by war. His memoir intertwines his intimate journey with the challenge of rebuilding his great grandfather’s abandoned home, which in 2006 was hit and partially destroyed by a half-exploded Israeli rocket. The book becomes a chronicle of the chaotic history of one of the oldest inhabited regions of the world which, because of its geographic location has seen war throughout its centuries old history, and part of Shadid’s goal in the book is an attempt to better understand the rise and fall of the Ottoman empire and the ensuing consequences which have embroiled Lebanon and the region of the Levant in an imperial game involving Britain, France, the US and their watchdog in the region Israel, ever since the beginning of the last century and lasting into our present time. Even as I pen this, US warplanes under President Trump’s directives, have started a bombing campaign in neighbouring Syria, which was once part of Greater Lebanon – or was Lebanon part of Greater Syria? Borders remain porous, reminders of the careless carving up of once autonomous regions into spurious nation states modeled on those of the Western powers who became imperial masters after they defeated the Ottomans who had ruled the Levantine region for centuries.
Sharon Lerner in The Intercept:
The hardest part of reversing the warming of the planet may be convincing climate change skeptics of the need to do so. Although scientists who study the issue overwhelming agree that the earth is undergoing rapid and profound climate changes due to the burning of fossil fuels, a minority of the public remains stubbornly resistant to that fact. With temperatures rising and ice caps melting — and that small minority in control of both Congress and the White House — there seems no project more urgent than persuading climate deniers to reconsider their views. So we reached out to Jerry Taylor, whose job as president of the Niskanen Center involves turning climate skeptics into climate activists.
It might seem like an impossible transition, except that Taylor, who used to be staff director for the energy and environment task force at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and vice president of the Cato Institute, made it himself.
Sharon Lerner: What did you think when you first encountered the concept of climate change back in the 1990s?
Jerry Taylor: From 1991 through 2000, I was a pretty good warrior on that front. I was absolutely convinced of the case for skepticism with regard to climate science and of the excessive costs of doing much about it even if it were a problem. I used to write skeptic talking points for a living.
SL: What was your turning point?
JT: It started in the early 2000s. I was one of the climate skeptics who do battle on TV and I was doing a show with Joe Romm. On air, I said that, back in 1988, when climate scientist James Hansen testified in front of the Senate, he predicted we’d see a tremendous amount of warming. I argued it’d been more than a decade and we could now see by looking at the temperature record that he wasn’t accurate. After we got done with the program and were back in green room, getting the makeup taken off, Joe said to me, “Did you even read that testimony you’ve just talked about?” And when I told him it had been a while, he said “I’m daring you to go back and double check this.” He told me that some of Hansen’s projections were spot on. So I went back to my office and I re-read Hanson’s testimony. And Joe was correct. So I then I talked to the climate skeptics who had made this argument to me, and it turns out they had done so with full knowledge they were being misleading.
SL: So that was it? You changed your mind?
JT: It was more gradual.
Adrian Furnham in Psychology Today:
There is an extensive literature in many disciplines on the topic of mate preferences and selection (Candolin, 2003; Prokosch, Coss, Scheib & Blozis, 2009; Shackelford, Schmitt & Buss, 2005; Schwarz & Hassenbrauck, 2012).
Much of the recent literature has been driven by debates on the power of the Body Mass Index (BMI) over Waist-to-Hip (WHR) ratios to attempt to determine the universality of male mate preferences (Dixson, Sagata, Linklater & Dixson, 2010). The debate has been won by the BMI school who argue from the data that it is the best and first-past-the-post choice factor when men look at women.
But there are a long list of other factors that play a part. They have one thing in common which is they are indicators of health and youth. Men like long shiny hair; they like a smooth skin. And they are very interested in symmetry.
Ammar Rashid in Dawn:
Much has been said about what the lynching of Mashal Khan revealed about Pakistani society – from the brutal consequences of mob hysteria to the degree to which fanaticism has seeped into the social fabric.
That the tragedy took place in a university, however, spoke to another process that has helped bring the country to its current impasse – the political and ideological brutalisation of its students by the state.
The on-campus lynching of a student by a mob of his peers solely on the basis of his progressive ideas was chilling to all who witnessed it; yet it was also simply the logical culmination of a decades-old state project to neutralise the potential of student politics for resistance and dissent in Pakistan.
This project has largely been successful. Today, with the exception of a few campuses, the Pakistani university is not a space of freedom for learning, ideological debate or critical thinking, but one of apathy, ideological conformity, and moral conservatism, often enforced through a nexus between the state, university administrations and unelected right-wing student groups.
Marko Ahtisaari helped found 3 Quarks Daily almost 13 years ago, and is responsible for my early introduction to blogging. Here, he is interviewed by another friend, Azeem Azhar. It's a fascinating discussion.
From The Guardian:
As a 24-year-old Cambridge academic, I was lucky enough to be involved in the writing of the May Day Manifesto of 1967. It was a genuinely collaborative project among a range of leftwing intellectuals of the day, a bunch of whom descended on Raymond Williams’s cottage outside Cambridge to cobble together a powerful indictment of Harold Wilson’s Labour government. EP Thompson scribbled away in one corner of the living room, Stuart Hall discussed neocolonialism in another, while Ralph Miliband phoned in from the LSE. The general air was one of tweeds and pipe smoke. There were no women, a fact that even the most dedicated militant of the day would not have found in the least strange. It would be hard to muster such an impressive bunch of socialist minds today. The intellectual left is thinner on the ground than it was. We have lost almost all the leading figures of that historical moment – though lost them to death rather than to apathy or apostasy. The political climate of the time offered more opportunities for the left as well. One year after the manifesto was published, student revolt swept across Europe, while the United States was plunged into the twin crises of civil rights and the Vietnam war. Today across the Atlantic, the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
…The mantra of privatisation as the only possible solution to the crisis is still invoked regularly by elite opinion makers almost everywhere. That this dogmatic obsession is wrecking living conditions seems to have little impact on our rulers. Health services are under siege by private companies with politicians on their payrolls. A rational solution exists but is blocked by the dictatorship of capital. To take one example: the NHS in Britain. It’s short-sighted to think that this can only be funded by more taxes. The postwar politicians who created the NHS missed out on an important corollary: a state-owned pharmaceutical industry that would stop the grotesque profits of big pharma from crippling a nationalised health service. It has worked well in some parts of the south. Why doesn’t the north follow suit? It would help to drastically reduce the costs of public medicine. For this to happen the cancer of privatisation needs to be rooted out.
Crazy Horse Speaks
I discovered the evidence
in a vault of the Mormon Church
3,000 skeletons of my cousins
in a silence so great
I built four walls around it
and gave it a name.
I called it Custer
and he came to me
again in a dream.
He forgave all my sins.
Little Big Horn.
Little Big Horn does not belong to me.
I was there
my horse exploded beneath me.
I searched for Long Hair
the man you call Custer
the man I call My Father.
But it wasn't me who killed him
it was _____________
who poked holes in Custer's ears
and left the body for proof.
I dream of him
and search doorways and alleys
for his grave.
General George Armstrong Custer
my heart is beating
I wear the color of my skin
like a brown paper bag
wrapped around a bottle.
the pages of dictionaries
your language cuts
tears holes in my tongue
until I do not have strength
to use the word “Love”.
What could it mean
in this city where everyone is
Read more »
Tara Cheesman-Olmsted at The Quarterly Conversation:
The opening pages of Cockroaches, Mukasonga’s memoir about the Rwandan genocide and the decades surrounding it, introduces a distinctive narrative style and framework onto the story that follows. Mukasonga creates an intimate space where she can speak. She seats us across the table and, in hushed tones (her children sleeping in the next room), shares her memories.
It begins in the late 1950s, after the Rwandan Revolution. Hutus are in power. Mukasonga and her Tutsi relatives are forcefully relocated to Nyamata, in eastern Rwanda. Then they are moved to Gitwe, a village built by the government specifically to put displaced Tutsis. They will remain there for a time, but eventually will find a more permanent home in Gitagata. Gitagata is where her family will be killed.
Mukasonga scrutinizes the events leading up to and including the 1994 Rwandan genocide subjectively, focusing on memories of her family and childhood. She uses individual experience as a way to personalize what most of us know only from the newspaper. Some of her memories are good—time spent with her mother, ditching school to gather fruit with friends, and the making of banana wine. Others are painful—being called Inyenzi, cockroach; the threat of rape; hiding in the bush from men with machetes and spiked clubs. She speaks of the persistent state of fear, of looming danger, that she and her loved ones endured. She describes “noises, shouts, a hum like a swarm of bees, a growl filling the air.” This is the sound of the “pogroms.” Horrors appear on these pages in the guise of normality.
Michael Dirda at the Washington Post:
The 19th-century historian Leopold von Ranke famously urged reconstructing the past “wie es eigentlich gewesen,” to show how it really was. Insofar as she can, Roper adapts this motto to biography: She aims to track Luther’s “inner development,” to get inside his head: “I want to know how a sixteenth-century individual perceived the world around him, and why he viewed it in this way. I want to explore his inner landscapes so as to better understand his ideas about flesh and spirit.” She adds that “it was Luther’s vivid friendships and enmities that convinced me that he had to be understood through his relationships, and not as the lone hero of the Reformation myth.” As a result, her book situates this revolutionary thinker and his thought in the sociological, political and religious crosscurrents of contemporary Germany.
Born in 1483, Luther grew up in the mining town of Mansfeld, where his father was part of what we’d now call upper management. When young Martin toddled off to the university at Erfurt, he was supposed to come home a lawyer. But, following a terrifying epiphany during a thunderstorm, he instead resolved to become an Augustinian monk, despite paternal displeasure. Like psychologist Erik Erikson before her, Roper views Luther’s life in terms of authority figures that he initially revered, then outgrew and rejected.
Jon Meacham at the New York Times:
Virtually forgotten in our own time, Winchell is an undeniable architect of the way we live now — which makes Gabler’s biography essential reading. “A mention in his column or on his broadcast meant one was among the exalted,” Gabler wrote. “It meant that one’s name was part of the general fund of knowledge. It meant that one’s exploits, even if they were only the exploits of dining, rated acknowledgment. It meant that one’s life was validated.” Politically, Winchell, once an enthusiastic booster of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, claimed to have introduced the New York lawyer (and later Donald Trump mentor) Roy Cohn to Senator Joseph McCarthy and the broadcaster’s program became a platform for the Red-baiting of the 1950s. Culturally, Winchell helped create the ambient world of celebrity that permanently blurred the lines between politics, policy, sports and entertainment. “This culture,” according to Gabler, “would bind an increasingly diverse, mobile and atomized nation until it became, in many respects, America’s dominant ethos, celebrity consciousness our new common denominator.”
To understand the narcissism of the first decades of the 21st century, it may help to realize that it is neither a sudden nor an entirely new phenomenon. “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about,” Oscar Wilde’s Lord Henry remarked in 1890’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “and that is not being talked about.” The world Wilde anticipated and Winchell crystallized can be explained by a few key texts that illuminate how we find ourselves with a president of the United States who used to call up New York tabloid writers (and would very likely have called Winchell, had Winchell still been around) posing as Trump spokesman “John Miller” or “John Barron” to talk about … himself.
In this extract from The Lottery of Birth: On Inherited Social Inequalities, Namit Arora talks about parsing through the fiction that he is the sole author of his success and about the wilful blindness among Indians about their inherited privileges.
Namit Arora in The Wire:
A leading ideological fiction of our age is that worldly success comes to those who deserve it. Per this fiction, the smarter, more talented and disciplined men and women, with some unfortunate exceptions, come out ahead of the rest and morally deserve their material rewards in life. The flip side of this belief is of course that, with some unfortunate exceptions, those who find themselves at the bottom also morally deserve their lot for being – the conclusion is inescapable – neither smart nor talented nor disciplined enough.
Such a view partly derives from what social psychologists call ‘belief in a just world’ (usually amplified by ideology, more on that in the extended Introduction in the book). This widely held belief presumes that humans live under an overarching moral order – whether based on divine providence, karma, destiny, social cause-effect or another principle – which tends to produce fair and predictable consequences for our actions. It’s a belief in just deserts that, to varying degrees, all of us subscribe to. It’s evident in phrases like ‘chickens coming home to roost’ or ‘what goes around, comes around’. This deep-seated belief may well be essential for human self-preservation. It enables us to make plans, engage in practical goal-oriented behaviour and take pride in the outcomes of our efforts. Many aspects of our world even help validate this belief. Indeed, it seems like a natural instinct among people in all societies.
Yet this belief also clashes with the daily evidence of a capricious natural and social world that randomly and unjustly shapes individuals’ outcomes in life. A strong belief in a just world has a dark side. When something threatens the comforting cocoon of this belief, it can lead us to either deny the evidence, or to explain it away using tactics like victim blaming or discounting others’ hardships – especially in the face of systemic injustices and other situations that we can do little about. This often arises from our need to avoid the pangs of guilt we might feel for our good fortune, or to help justify our apathy, or perhaps to get over the emotional discomfort of empathising with the victim.
Ed Yong in The Atlantic:
Around 45,000 years ago, in a Belgian cave, a Neanderthal died. As its body decayed, its cells split apart, spilling their contents onto the cave floor. Those remnants included the Neanderthal’s DNA, some of which stuck to minerals in the sediment. There, leashed to the very rock, the DNA persisted, long after its owner’s body had disappeared and its bones had been carted off by scavengers. And in 2015, a group of scientists scooped it up.
Viviane Slon from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and her colleagues have now managed to extract and sequence the DNA of ancient animals from sediment that’s up to 240,000 years old. By doing so, they can infer the presence of Neanderthals, Denisovans, and other extinct hominids without ever having to find their bones. “We were surprised by how well it works,” says Slon. “The success rates were amazing.”
“I absolutely loved this,” says Jennifer Raff, who studies ancient DNA at the University of Kansas, and who was not involved in the study. “Although people have been working on recovering ancient DNA from sediments for a few years now, this is unprecedented in scope and success. My notes on the paper are full of exclamation marks. Woolly rhinoceros! Woolly mammoth! Cave bear! Neanderthal and Denisovans!”
Animals have a vast genetic aura that extends beyond their physical bodies into the world around them. Their DNA falls to the ground in balls of dung, zips through the air in blood-sucking insects, and leaches into the soil during decomposition. Scientists who study living animals have used this environmental DNA (eDNA) to identify everything from elephants and earthworms. They can conduct a census of the natural world without needing to spot any actual animals—a boon when working with rare or hard-to-spot species in inaccessible habitats.