on ‘House of Names’ By Colm Tóibín

29344653Clair Wills at Literary Review:

Tóibín has long been interested in writing about characters who don’t talk much, people who withhold information, including from their own inner selves. The elderly judge in The Heather Blazing, Henry James in The Master and the series of women in his recent fiction (Eilis Lacey’s mother in Brooklyn, Nora Webster, even Mary the mother of God in The Testament of Mary): all of them believe the risk of keeping secrets is outweighed by the cost of speaking. They try to protect themselves from vulnerability by staying silent. In House of Names, Clytemnestra learns early on that speaking out is no use. All she has on her side are prayers and curses, but the gods pay no heed to her and she turns to human-scale plotting instead. The voices that swirl through this novel are whispers and undertones, murmurs behind palace doors, rumours carried by servants, nods, winks and hand gestures. This is a world in which power is synonymous with those who police the right to speak openly, in edicts and injunctions; in such a world, the keeping of secrets is a weapon.

The trouble, as both Clytemnestra and Electra discover, is knowing whom to trust. Mother and daughter are enemies who have to sit down at table with one another. They are imprisoned together in the echo chamber of the palace and they prove to be equally at the mercy of the men they need to help them get things done. Both of them tell their stories in the first person, in voices that Tóibín brilliantly manipulates to suggest just how little, rather than how much, they are in control. The story of the third member of the family, the young Orestes (a mere boy at the time of Iphigenia’s murder), is narrated in the third person.

more here.

A different kind of girl power

Shenila Khoja-Mooji in Africa is a Country:

In recent years there has been a global convergence on the “girling of development”; in other words, girls’ empowerment and education as a way to address poverty. This includes corporate campaigns such as Nike’s Girl Effect and those by state aid organizations such as USAID’s Let Girls Learn. These campaigns promote understandings about girls’ empowerment that portray girls as individuated selves who can overcome structural difficulties – such as poverty and disease – if they only re-invent themselves by working hard, staying in school, delaying marriage and entering the workforce. This kind of “girl power” assumes an autonomous girl-subject who must rely on herself to improve her circumstances. This attention to the individual deflects attention from the role of the state, foreign policies, consumption patterns in the global North, as well as capitalist relations that exacerbate poverty in the global South. Poverty appears to be a personal problem rather than a political one.

Such storylines devolve into blaming local culture, families, and/or religious communities for the direct and structural violence that girls experience in the global South. The portrayal of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai in Western media often blames the entirety of Muslims and the nation of Pakistan for the bad behavior of the particular members of Taliban who attacked her. What we have then is a simultaneous elevation of the individual as the site of power and the demotion of the collectivities to which she belongs. These logics are deeply problematic because they shift blame to local entities (families, for instance) that, too, are enveloped in poverty due to capitalist relations. Furthermore, such logics mark religions and religious communities as irrelevant to modern times. Hence, one of my preoccupations has been to reclaim religion/families/cultures from these tired portrayals and excavate alternate evidence. Queen of Katwe, a Disney production directed by Mira Nair, provides one such intervention.

The film Queen of Katwe traces the life of chess champion, Phiona Mutesi, who lived in the shantytown of Katwe in Uganda. At the age of nine, she enrolls in a chess program managed by a local church ministry, enticed by the free cup of porridge that is distributed to students there. Through perseverance and practice, support from her mother, and a tenacious coach, Phiona goes on to win the national championship. Hers is, indeed, a story of triumph against insurmountable odds; a life-script that, perhaps, is not accessible to many girls in Katwe. However, the movie makes a range of interventions in the conventional wisdom about what constitutes education and points to the need to re-think dominant conceptualizations of “girl power.”

More here.

Challenging Mainstream Thought About Beauty’s big hand in evolution

James Gorman in The New York Times:

BeautyNot long ago, a physicist at Stanford posed a rhetorical question that took me by surprise. “Why is there so much beauty?” he asked. Beauty was not what I was thinking the world was full of when he brought it up. The physicist, Manu Prakash, was captivated by the patterns in seawater made as starfish larvae swam about. But he did put his finger on quite a puzzle: Why is there beauty? Why is there any beauty at all? Richard O. Prum, a Yale ornithologist and evolutionary biologist, offers a partial answer in a new book, “The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World — and Us.” He writes about one kind of beauty — the oh-is-he/she-hot variety — and mostly as it concerns birds, not people. And his answer is, in short: That’s what female birds like. This won’t help with understanding the appeal of fluid dynamics or the night sky, but Dr. Prum is attempting to revive and expand on a view that Charles Darwin held, one that sounds revolutionary even now.

The idea is that when they are choosing mates — and in birds it’s mostly the females who choose — animals make choices that can only be called aesthetic. They perceive a kind of beauty. Dr. Prum defines it as “co-evolved attraction.” They desire that beauty, often in the form of fancy feathers, and their desires change the course of evolution. All biologists recognize that birds choose mates, but the mainstream view now is that the mate chosen is the fittest in terms of health and good genes. Any ornaments or patterns simply reflect signs of fitness. Such utility is objective. Dr. Prum’s — and Darwin’s — notion of beauty is something more subjective, with no other meaning than its aesthetic appeal. Dr. Prum wants to push evolutionary biologists to re-examine their assumptions about utility and beauty, objectivity and subjectivity. But he also wants to reach the public with a message that is clear whether or not you dip into the technical aspects of evolution. The yearning to pick your own mate is not something that began with humans, he says. It can be found in ducks, pheasants and other creatures. “Freedom of choice matters to animals,” he said recently on a birding trip to a beach near his office in New Haven. “We’ve been explaining away desire rather than actually trying to understand or explain it. That’s one of the biggest shifts that the book is about.”

More here.

Should we outsource our moral beliefs to others?

By Grace Boey

Imagine the following scenario. Bob doesn’t have any opinion on whether abortions are okay. Although he could think through the issue for himself, Bob takes another route: he asks his friend Sally what she thinks. Because Bob trusts Sally, he doesn’t hesitate to believe her when she says that abortions are fine. From then on, Bob doesn’t give the question any more thought, and goes about acting as if what Sally says is true.

What, if anything, is weird about Bob? There might not be much of a problem if Bob already has some strong moral views about the permissibility of ending life more generally, and trusts that Sally—who happens to be an expert obstetrician— ScreenHunter_2711 May. 29 11.56knows some intricate scientific facts about abortions and foetal development that he isn’t in a position to know or understand. But what if, instead, Bob knows all the scientific information there is to know about abortions, lacks any moral views on the matter, and proceeds to outsource his moral beliefs to Sally? Even more provocatively: what if this scenario is set far in the future, and Bob uses the widely-available and completely reliable ‘Google Morals’ app to look up whether abortions are morally permissible?

There is something off-putting about Bob in the last two scenarios, that isn’t in the first. This has been framed as the ‘puzzle of pure moral deference’ in academic philosophical discussions. The puzzle, in short, concerns the asymmetry in our willingness to defer to others about empirical matters on the one hand, and purely moral matters on the other. Most of us would have no problems with Bob believing what Sally says about the science behind abortions. But the idea of him outsourcing his ethical beliefs to someone else, and the notion of anything like ‘Google Morals’, makes us balk.

Contemporary philosophers have offered solutions to two parts of this puzzle. First, what makes us balk at the prospects of practicing pure moral deference to others? And second, even if something is amiss about the practice, is it still alright for us to do it? In other words, should we be hopeful or doubtful about outsourcing our moral beliefs to others?

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Current Genres of Fate: Psychology and Personality

by Paul North

Hannibal and clarice1How strange we are! We talk about our friends. We whisper: look, she's doing it again. She acts like that because her mother treated her in such and such a way. And: look at him. He always does this sort of thing. He finally got diagnosed but clearly they have to increase his dosage. Look at us: we're evolutionarily selected to hate our enemies, to choose mates with even finger lengths, to vote republican. We love to talk about psychology, the predilections, ticks, repetitions, drives, the mechanisms that make us do what we do. Along the same lines, we fetishize abnormal psychology and tell ourselves we're well within normal, and we know we are because we watch Dexter and Criminal Minds.

Some of what our friends do we put down to psychology, but TV serial killers are totally psychologized beings. The relationship of psychology to fateful thinking can be seen most clearly in them. What serial killers do is so extreme it can only be explained by reference to a tight internal network of causes controlling their being and activities. Morality doesn't affect them; they have no second thoughts before and no regrets after. All their acts are determined by the internal network, and it's up to the detective—an amateur psychologist, sometimes a professional—to unravel it. Serial killers are totally psychologized. Nothing they do is free. Each gesture can be traced to something in their childhood, some event that caused a twist in their mind, an imbalance in their essence, an association of false ideas, though these ideas are often deeply imaginative. And yet, you would never ask what the bloody act means to a serial killer. You never wonder whether they made a conscious decision to skin their victims; instead, you ask about the pathology that caused the act. Serial killers—on TV and in the movies—are one of the few creatures around whose actions can all be ascribed a cause. The serial killer is the body of fate, and psychology is its mind, its criminal mind.

Cassius laments: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves…" We can't pinpoint exactly when fate became fault, when destiny moved out of the stars and into the psyche, but in 1599 in Julius Caesar Shakespeare noted that it had already happened. How do you predict behavior, understand the world, tell a good person from a bad person when fate is not in the stars but within you? Not Cassius, but a much later literary character tells us: "You try to reconstruct his thinking. You try to find patterns." You find patterns, not in the stars, but in the head. So says Will Graham, the "forensic specialist" in the first Hannibal Lecter novel by Thomas Harris, Red Dragon. Bloodstains darken the walls and the floor. Those traces of the crime are easy to see. The stains that blot out reason in the killer's mind are hidden and have to be uncovered painstakingly and the task is not without risk.

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The Society of Hopscotch Fanatics

by Michael Liss

124672_fullWe all have our "desert island" videos. Send me with a couple of John Ford Westerns, perhaps Fort Apache and My Darling Clementine. Download to my notebook the first Godfather and the first Star Wars, and add something serious like The Sorrow and the Pity, Z, or the original Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Make me laugh with The Philadelphia Story or Young Frankenstein or The Producers. Do that, and I can play quietly by myself for a while without disturbing the adults.

Yet, I belong to a secret order, The Society of Hopscotch Fanatics, and would insist on having that movie in my go bag. It's got everything: The CIA, FBI, MI-6, the Russians. Chases in trucks, cars, and airplanes. Gadgets. Appealing women with foreign accents. Exotic disguises. Even some gun-play. And music—fantastic music. It's the kind of film you could watch 20 times (or more, but who's counting?) and you would still be finding things to make you smile.

The storyline is fairly simple. A CIA field agent (Miles Kendig), who, admittedly, is a bit of an antique, is pushed into a desk job by his boss, the quintessentially boorish (and short) Meyerson. Kendig doesn't want to be benched. He shreds his file (literally, as there are apparently no electronic copies in the late 1970's) and walks out. He decides to write a book, Hopscotch, documenting some of the Agency's less glorious moments (and featuring Meyerson) and begins sending juicy chapters to interested, and sometimes horrified, readers. Kendig goes off in search of a publisher and to reunite with Isobel, his old girlfriend. Meyerson goes off (with murderous intent) in search of Kendig, dragging Kendig's protégé, Joe Cutter, and a couple of hapless CIA guys, along for the ride. We have stops in Savannah, London, Bermuda and Salzburg, plus various border-crossings and other points East and West, and do some serious damage to reputations, houses, and ears.

The cast is terrific. Walter Matthau is Kendig, and while he may seem anything but the suave international spy, he's far smarter than anyone chasing him. Beneath that Oscar Madison exterior is someone quite creative with electronic and mechanical equipment, firecrackers, and paperclips.

Glenda Jackson plays Isobel, now retired from the Agency to "marry some old Nazi" who has since departed this mortal coil, leaving her with a very useful "Von" in her last name, an Austrian passport, and sufficient means to join forces with Kendig. This is the second movie the pair co-starred in, and the very offbeat, very adult chemistry they share is not unlike a good glass of wine…complex, but cuts grease. One could say it takes a great actress to make a sex symbol out of Matthau, but she likes the guy, for all his exasperating behavior. If Glenda Jackson likes you, you must be OK.

Rounding out the featured spies, Ned Beatty is Meyerson. He's thoroughly execrable, but doesn't turn the character into a cartoon. Sam Waterston sets intellectual women's hearts aflutter as Cutter (even Eleanor Roosevelt would have liked him), and Herbert Lom is a sly Yaskov, the KGB agent (you will love his omnipresent Boris Badanov hat, trench coat and mustache).

The film has some extraordinary assets beyond its leads.

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Kurkov’s Cacti

by Holly A. Case

Kurkov's Cacti

The remnants of Andrei Kurkov's cactus collection

Cacti don't exactly grow on trees in Ukraine. They need a great deal of light or they become deformed. In winter the air temperature has to be maintained at ten degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit), which is neither easy nor fun to manage in an apartment. Some cacti require special microclimates with controlled humidity, and most need to be checked almost daily for moth infestation.

I learned all this from the Ukrainian novelist, Andrei Kurkov. A few months ago, a group of us was sitting around a table in the Café Eiles in Vienna when someone pointed out the collection of photographs of famous visitors to the café on an adjacent wall. The conversation turned to collecting: candy canes, baseball cards, chickens… "I had the seventh-largest cactus collection in Soviet Kiev," Andrei submitted.

Many questions spring to mind following such a statement; it's hard to know which to ask first. I opted for "How many did you have?" Hundreds. In his youth, Kurkov's favorite haunt had been the animal market, and especially the cactus section. Since breeding animals and plants was one of the few unregulated economic activities in the Soviet Union, the breeders, growers, and vendors at the market comprised an "oasis" that "did not belong to Soviet reality," he recalled. Soon he joined a local cacti-growers' club and was trading seeds and growing tips with other enthusiasts. "We lived in a small flat," he told us, "only two rooms on the fifth floor and all the windows were covered with shelves of cacti," some from the market, others grown from seed. Hollow plastic building blocks with one side sawed off served as pots, and the young Andrei learned botanical Latin in order to address his protégés by their proper names.

It was during his cactus-collecting phase that Kurkov also discovered the poetry of Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Nikolay Minski, and other offspring of Russian literature's "silver age." Their poems reached him through volumes smuggled into the country by his elder brother's dissident friends (one of whom later died in prison, probably from a beating). The young Andrei would sit and listen to the older boys talk about poetry and bash the Soviet government in the kitchen of his parents' flat. "They were interested in everything that was not allowed," he later told me. "I think I was both frightened and curious. Maybe more curious than frightened." He remembers the time fondly, as one of "poetry and cacti."

At the growers' club he met some of Kiev's top-ranked cactomaniacs, which included an opera singer and a professor at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute, among others.

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Singing the Praises of James Bond

by Akim Reinhardt

Roger Moore in Octopussy (1983) Eon filmsRoger Moore died last week at the age of 89. He is the first important Bond to pass (sorry David Niven!), so predictably heated arguments ensued: Where does Moore rank in the canon of Bond actors?

It was a boring debate. Moore was the worst, plain and simple. He helped drive the franchise into a ditch of silly gadgets and bad puns. Revisionists now praising Moore celebrate the supposed "camp" of his films. That is badly misguided. They weren't camp.

John Waters films are camp. The Avengers and Charlie's Angels are camp. Drag queen lip sync cabaret is camp. Roger Moore's James Bond movies were just bad.

Moore's first turn as Bond (Live and Let Die, 1973) was actually quite good. That's because he was still cowed by the towering shadow of Sean Connery, so he played it straight. But director Guy Hamilton (who also pushed the franchise in the wrong direction) soon told Moore to stop imitating Connery and just be himself. It sounds like the kind of genuine, supportive advice you should give any artist. Except that Moore being himself, as it turned out, was little more than a dandy in a tux. By his second film (Man with the Golden Gun, 1974) pubescent girls were "upstaging" him in a karate scene. Har Har. It wasn't camp. It was failed comedy, 1970s-style. At that point Burt Reynolds could've been playing the role.

Part of the problem also stemmed from Moore's age; he was simply too old for the part during most of his career. Connery debuted as Bond at age 31. Moore was 45 when Live and Let Die premiered. From Moonraker (1979) on, his fight scenes were laughable and his love scenes with women half his age or less were creepy. Bond the charming dilettante. Bond the well groomed pensioner. Bond as a candidate for late life romance on The Love Boat.

Jesus, maybe it was camp.

Nevertheless, when my favorite film critic, A.O. Scott of the New York Times, exalts Moore as the best James Bond on the grounds of camp and pshaws Millennials for not getting it, I just can't go along. I'm a Gen Xer like Scott, and I do enjoy camp, but this smells of defending the crap of our youth with rationalized nostalgia. Waters wants to be camp. Charlie’s Angels has to be camp. But Bond movies can actually be good without being campy.

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The Galileo Trial: Faux News from the 17th Century

by Leanne Ogasawara

50965500-galileo-pisa_custom-f89507f1a583b89ca237cc1bf648a57dee799c5b-s900-c85A man cloaked in myth, what if I told you that many of the stories we tell ourselves about Galileo are simply untrue? That not only did the great scientist not drop any balls off the top of the Tower of Pisa but he didn't invent the telescope either. And not only was he never excommunicated from the Catholic church but he wasn't imprisoned in a dungeon either. Would you be surprised if I brought up the fact that he had been given permission by the Pope to write on the very topic that people think got him into trouble?

Most people now realize that few believed in a flat earth even in the Middle Ages. But, were you also aware that many of the greatest natural philosophers working in mathematics and astronomy were not only theologians but were no more proponents of the Ptolemaic system than Galileo was? Indeed, the church at the time of Galileo did not have an issue with suppositions, mathematical models or observations–and many of the greatest scientists of the church were exploring the same scientific questions as Galileo.

So, the problem was not science versus religion (that would come later). Rather, it was really an issue of theological interpretation both within the church, which was not a monolith "other" as the trope suggests; and against the backdrop of the Counter-Reformation.

I think it helps to remember that up till the time of Galileo, physicists were really mathematicians, working in mathematical models–only rarely the experimentalists we imagine today. In particular, astronomers sought to describe phenomena and make predictions. They did not engage in discussions about causes or the nature of things as that was the work of theologians. Instead, they created useful astronomical (and astrological) charts and predictions. In the history of science there is much talk about "saving the phenomena" in order to make as accurate predictions as possible (see my post here on how we are seeing this again today with regard to quantum mechanics). And guess what? Before the invention of the telescope, the Copernican understanding did not make much better predictions than the Ptolemaic system. If you think about it, until Kepler's Law of Ellipses were accepted, the Copernican system was the geometric mirror image of the Ptolemaic one –and therefore still required many, many tweaks to it, including epicycles.

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What we do now, now

by Dave Maier

What we do nowI haven’t commented on politics since the election, not least because I have no special expertise. But like lots of people, I spend too much time on the internet. When I fire up my iPad, it gives me several headlines. The Washington Post sends me a daily email with dozens of links. And I have a few blogs and other sites I check every day. All that stuff gets me thinking; so I find myself, as have many here over the past few months, with some opinions to share.

I’ve also been reading a book called What We Do Now: Standing Up For Your Values in Trump’s America (Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians, eds.). Most of the many short selections in this volume seem to have been written (or delivered: some are speeches) in the immediate wake of November’s existential shock to the lefty system, so they have titles like “Thoughts for the Horrified” (Paul Krugman), “Welcome to the Resistance!” (Gloria Steinem), and “How Our Fear Can Be Turned Into a Powerful Movement” (M. Dove Kent, executive director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice). One editor’s introduction sets the tone with decidedly purple prose:

Somehow, the United States has always averted a takeover from the far right. It was something that made our country great. … Americans have always, ultimately, resisted the call to calamity by listening, instead, to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

It was such a long spell—nearly a century—that we were all perhaps too secure in the idea that “it can’t happen here.”

But now it has. It has happened here.

And so on. Again, I can forgive this sort of heavy breathing coming in November (the book itself was first published in January). But as the months drag on, it seems to me to be getting a bit stale. I should say that not all of the book maintains this apocalyptic tone, and many of the suggestions for action are perfectly sensible (e.g. “recognize we all have a role to play”). Others, not so much (“boycott all Trump products”). In any case, I’d say it’s time for a reset.

So since lists of things to do seem to be a thing, here’s mine. I’m happy to report that nothing here is particularly original and that even many of the writers at the New York Times are saying some of these same things (never thought I’d nod in agreement while reading a Ross Douthat column!), but I think they bear repeating. They are directed mostly at Democrats, but sometimes more narrowly at lefties or more broadly at anyone who does not own a cap that says “MAGA” on it.

1. Chill.

No, it hasn’t “happened here.” If the past five months have shown anything, it’s that President Trump (a phrase it might help to start using) is much more like a typical Republican (cut taxes on rich people domestically, macho bluster abroad) than a fascist or any other ideologue. Bannon’s not the president, Trump is; and Trump clearly cares a lot more about Trump than he does, well, anything else, let alone The Cause. (“La cause, c’est moi.”)

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Hitler’s Popular Dictatorship

by Ahmed Humayun

P02n576bMore than 70 years after its demise, the monstrous dictatorship of Adolf Hitler remains a fascinating case study of evil. I have often wondered: Did Hitler have the support of ordinary Germans? If so, how did he gain this support? There is no single or easy answer to these types of questions, but to my mind, the single most incisive guide to Hitler’s regime is "The Meaning of Hitler" (1978) by Sebastian Haffner.

Haffner grew up in Germany but fled to England with his Jewish fiancé in 1938. Originally trained as a lawyer, he became an influential journalist, political analyst, and author. During World War II, Haffner helped the West understand Nazi Germany. In "The Meaning of Hitler", Haffner suggests that most Germans supported Hitler at the height of his popularity, and that Hitler’s achievements helped win much of this support.

Of course, Hitler used force to gain and hold power. Since the 1920s, Nazi paramilitary forces had intimidated and assassinated opponents. After Hitler became chancellor in 1933, the creation of the Gestapo further solidified Nazi control over German society. Hitler elevated the strategic use of terror to an art form. Haffner writes that Hitler and his henchmen would issue unhinged threats, then follow up with terrorist actions that fell short of the fearful expectations created by those threats, and finally, allow some normalcy to return while “keeping a little background terror”. This approach intimidated the general public without generating extreme opposition to Nazi rule.

Recent scholarship tends to confirm that while Nazi terror was immense, it was selective. Eric Johnson argues in "Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and ordinary Germans" (2000) that, in general, Nazi terror focused on political opponents of the regime and members of persecuted and stigmatized groups. If you belonged to these categories, you were systematically killed, tortured, and discriminated against; otherwise, you could probably stay out of the crosshairs of the Gestapo. Nazi repression didn’t necessarily impose a significant cost on the day-to-day lives of many Germans.

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Letter to a World War II Heroine

May 29, 2017

Dear Babuly,

Webp.net-resizeimage (3)Here in America, it is Memorial Day— a day for the honored dead. (Different from Veterans' Day, observed in November, which acknowledges all who have served in the military). Memorial Day is dedicated to the remembrance of those who never came back, who lost their lives in armed conflict. Solemnity and reverence describe its mood. I am glad we have this day. But can a single day suffice? I worry that it signals a poverty of remembrance.

Lately, it feels like more and more remembrance is needed. The scourge of amnesia seems to have fallen upon us. Or, perhaps, we as a race are becoming incrementally more savage. Just this past week, so much blood spilled, I was hesitant to open the newspaper. Afraid to have the breath sucked out of me again. Even before I tell you of these events that hit me, I am conscious there are others I will not mention, that I do not know about, which by a failure of distance, or point of view, did not make the news, or my eye missed the fine print of their announcement. An unjustifiable erasure.

What would you say? I wonder.

It's these erasures, isn't it, these countless erasures that over time build up into a rage so huge it renders the wounded and desperate with a motive force? I sense it, alive and latent. A primal instinct: the will to be heard and seen by fellow humans, to scream out pain in the absence of empathy. In the darkest hour, that distorted impulse rises up and reaches out to inflict the abiding pain from within on to all those smug, laughing faces. The world is an ugly place right now. The pungency of fear sits on many tongues, poisoning the air.

On this Memorial Day, my mind conjures an image: miles of flat land marked by thousands of headstones, the graves of those felled in action. Bone-white headstones, almost translucent, against the canvas of night. The earth is rough, soil upturned beneath a turbulent sky. A vigorous wind blows across this forbidding landscape filled with the bodies of martyrs.

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Other People’s Culture and the Problem of Identity

by Bill Benzon

Some years ago I was reading an article in Krin Gabbard’s anthology, Jazz Among the Discourses (1995), one of a pair of anthologies arguing that “jazz has entered the mainstreams of the American academy”. The general purpose of the anthology is to help ensure that this new discipline is in harmony with the latest developments in postmodern humanities scholarship. One Steven Elworth contributed a paper examining the critical transformation of jazz into an art music: “Jazz in Crisis, 1948—1958: Ideology and Representation.”

In the course of his argument, Elworth observes: “The major paradox of all writing about culture is how to take seriously a culture not one’s own without reducing it to an ineffable Other. I do not wish to argue, of course, that one can only write of one’s own culture. In the contemporary moment of constant cultural transformation and commodification, even the definition of one’s own culture is exceedingly contradictory and problematic.”

My immediate response was “Right on! Brother!” But then I asked myself, “Just what ‘culture not one’s own’ is Elworth talking about?” Since this article is about jazz I assume that jazz culture is what he’s talking about. I further assume that Elworth is White, for I cannot imagine a Black scholar writing that way about jazz.

[Portrait of Cozy Cole, New York, N.Y.(?), ca. Sept. 1946] (LOC)
Cozy Cole, the drummer at the back. New York, N.Y., Sept. 1946. William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

As we know, the jazz genealogy has strands extending variously to West Africa and Europe, has been and continues to be performed by Blacks and Whites, before audiences both Black and White – though, in the past, these have often been segmented into different venues, or different sections of the same venue – the music is conventionally considered to be Black. That convention is justified by the fact the music’s major creators have been overwhelmingly Black. Thus it follows that jazz culture is, as these conventions go, Black culture.

But, in what sense would jazz be foreign to Elworth, and so NOT his own culture? The fact that he is writing about jazz suggests that he likes it a great deal and knows more than a little about it. It is quite possible that he grew up in a house where folks listened to jazz on a regular basis. If not that, perhaps he discovered jazz while among friends or relatives and came to love it. He likely attends live performances; perhaps he is a weekend warrior, jamming with friends either privately or in public. He may well have been to weddings where a jazz band played the reception. He is comfortable with jazz; he knows something of its history and understands its conventions. It is not exotic music. That is to say, it is unlikely that Elworth discovered jazz in some foreign land where no one speaks English, nor eats and dresses American style, nor knows anything of Mozart or Patsy Cline, among many others. Jazz is a routine and familiar part of Elworth’s life.

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How do wealth and income inequality develop? And how can they be reversed?

Matt Bruenig in Jacobin:

5482099348_0a9217ff5c_oWhen American Airlines announced last month that it would boost the pay of its pilots and flight attendants by around $1 billion, investors were livid. One Citi analyst fumed: “This is frustrating. Labor is being paid first. Shareholders get leftovers.” Traders swiftly punished the company for its temerity, with American Airlines’ market capitalization shrinking by 9.7 percent, or $2.2 billion, in the three days following the news.

But while the amusing outrage and simple narrative of the American Airlines story caused it to attract a good deal of attention, it is far from unique. Quarterly earnings statements and company announcements regularly send the market value of businesses soaring or plummeting. As shareholder expectations about the future profits of companies change, so too does the price of corporate shares.

This basic point lies at the core of some recently published critiques of Thomas Piketty’s seminal work Capital in the Twenty-First Century. According to economists like Suresh Naidu, a contributor to the new volume After Piketty, asset valuation dynamics like those at American Airlines could be at the heart of the changing wealth landscape in the US and other developed economies.

If Naidu and others are right, Piketty’s theory of how wealth and income inequality develop may be exactly backwards. And his prescriptions for reversing skyrocketing inequality may suffer accordingly.

More here.