How nations stay together

Andreas Wimmer in Aeon:

hy do some countries fall apart, often along their ethnic fault lines, while others have held together over decades and centuries, despite governing a diverse population as well? Why is it, in other words, that nation-building succeeded in some places while it failed in others? The current tragedy in Syria illustrates the possibly murderous consequences of failed nation-building. Outside of the media spotlight, South Sudan and the Central African Republic went through similar experiences in recent years. In some rich and democratic countries in western Europe, such as Spain, Belgium and the United Kingdom, longstanding secessionist movements have regained momentum. Within our lifetimes, they might well succeed in breaking apart these states. On the other hand, there is no secessionist movement among the Cantonese speakers of southern China or among the Tamils of India. And why has no serious politician ever questioned national unity in such diverse countries as Switzerland or Burkina Faso?

Before answering these questions, it is necessary to define nation-building more precisely. It goes beyond the mere existence of an independent country with a flag, an anthem and an army. Some old countries (such as Belgium) haven’t come together as a nation, while other more recently founded states (such as India) have done so. There are two sides to the nation-building coin: the extension of political alliances across the terrain of a country, and the identification with and loyalty to the institutions of the state, independent of who currently governs. The former is the political-integration aspect, the latter the political-identity aspect of nation-building. To foster both, political ties between citizens and the state should reach across ethnic divides.

More here.

Stephanie Kelton Has The Biggest Idea In Washington

Zach Carter in The Huffington Post:

Kelton’s core idea ― that the government can’t run out of money or go bankrupt, no matter how much it spends ― hasn’t really changed since the days when Buiter and Krugman were trashing her thinking. But it seems the world has. Today she is a full-fledged member of the American power elite, juggling television bookings with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Bloomberg TV’s Joe Weisenthal, writing op-eds for The New York Times and being quoted in The Wall Street Journal.

Pod Save America and Financial Times want her on their podcasts. She’s got a book deal with Public Affairs, and Bloomberg View has signed her up as its newest columnist ― but she isn’t sure that gig is worth the time, given her packed speaking schedule. In May alone, she’s being flown to Las Vegas to debate a former International Monetary Fund chief economist before heading to Monaco to moderate a panel on artificial intelligence. After that, the House of Lords in London.

Everybody wants a piece of Kelton these days because a simple, radical idea she has been workshopping her entire career is the next big thing in Democratic Party politics. She calls it the job guarantee ― a federal program offering a decent job to every American who wants to work, in every county in the country, at any phase of the business cycle.

It’s a practical expression of her monetary thinking.

More here.

Saturday Poem


… Up ahead, in the twilight, the endless yes
that never can be reached.
……………………………………. “Yessss!”
…………………………………………………. And the light,
intensified, calling me . . .

It wasn’t from the sea . . . Reaching
the mouths of light that spoke it
infinitely drawn out,
it vibrates, yet again, immensely faint
in a distance that the soul knows is high
and wants to believe is distant, only distant.

by Juan Ramón Jimenéz
from The Poet & the Sea
White Pine Press 2009


Delante, en el ocaso, el si infinito
al que nunca se llega.
…………………………… “Siiiii!”
……………………………………… Y la luz,
se agudiza, llamándome…

No era del mar … Llegados
a las bocas de luz que lo decían
con largor infinito,
vibra, otra vez, inmensamente débil

en un lejos que el alma sabe alto
y quiere creer lejos, sólo lejos…

Philip Roth: ‘the kind of satirical genius that comes along once in a generation’

Martin Amis in The Guardian:

Writers of genuine originality are always divisive. Roth alienated not just the occasional reader but entire communities, reviled, first, by world Jewry, and later by world feminism. This choric hostility was in both cases essentially socio-cultural, and not literary. You can understand the historical uneasiness, but World Jewry got it wrong about Roth, a proud Jew as well as a proud American. And the feminist objection is impetuously sweeping; it detects no distance between Roth and his (often deplorable) narrators. Besides, if you outlaw misogyny as a subject, then you outlaw King Lear, and much else.

My subjective impression is that Portnoy’s Complaint is still the diamond in the crown. Here the Jewish-American Novel is narrowed down to one idea: gentile girls, shiksas (“detested things”), where ancient laws of purity come up against American womanhood, and the inevitability of material America. In Portnoy all the great themes are there (all except mortality): fathers, mothers, children, the male libido, suffering, and Israel. Roth torches this bonfire with the kind of satirical genius that comes along, if we’re lucky, perhaps once in every generation.

More here.

The Decline of Diplomacy

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan in The New York Times:

In 2010, just before Thanksgiving, American foreign-policy makers flew into a panic. The United States government had gotten word that an outfit called WikiLeaks was preparing to release an enormous cache of secret diplomatic cables, in coordination with teams of journalists from this and other newspapers. At the time, I was a policy hand in the State Department. It fell to me and my colleagues to dutifully craft apologies on behalf of our bosses, whose sensitive communications and private insults — speculation about, say, a foreign leader’s mental aptitude or mysterious wealth — were about to become public. They, meanwhile, confronted weightier concerns, scrambling to anticipate the coming fallout. Would missions and sources be compromised? Would activists be exposed to persecution? Would anyone ever talk to American officials again? Almost no one, however, anticipated what would prove to be one of the more lasting consequences of the leak: surprised admiration for American diplomats. “My personal opinion of the State Department has gone up several notches,” the British historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash wrote. He compared one veteran ambassador’s prose to Evelyn Waugh’s, and deemed other analyses “astute,” “unsentimental” and “hilarious.” Beneath their “dandruffy” exteriors, he concluded after browsing the classified offerings, these diplomats were sharper, and funnier, than they looked.

Ronan Farrow aims to achieve a similar effect in “War on Peace.” At a time when the Trump administration has called for gutting the State Department’s budget and filled foreign-policy jobs with military officers, Farrow draws on both government experience and fresh reporting to offer a lament for the plight of America’s diplomats — and an argument for why it matters. “Classic, old-school diplomacy,” he observes, is “frustrating” and involves “a lot of jet lag.” Yet his wry voice and storytelling take work that is often grueling and dull and make it seem, if not always exciting, at least vividly human. A Foreign Service officer’s hairstyle is “diplomat’s mullet: peace in the front, war in the back”; an Afghan strongman’s choice of décor is “warlord chic,” with “leatherette La-Z-Boy recliners” and “a giant tank full of sharks.”

More here.

Two new books explore how psychedelics can change your life

Charlotte Shane at Bookforum:

TAO LIN’S EIGHTH BOOK, Trip, is his best yet, and it’s all thanks to drugs. Well, perhaps not entirely thanks to drugs. With exercise comes mastery, or at least competence, and Lin has been practicing his idiosyncratic craft for over a decade. His first book was published in 2006, when he was twenty-three; improvement during the intervening years may have been inevitable. But Lin—whose authorial voice, notoriously, is so assiduously literal that it sometimes seems transcribed from a robot failing a Turing test—has never been more creative, precise, or inspired than when he details psychedelics-begotten behavior and theories. The behavior is mostly his own, while the theories are often borrowed from Terence McKenna, the late psilocybin advocate whose YouTube videos started Lin down the path to revitalization. While studying McKenna, Lin began to make radical adjustments to his daily drug routines, which in turn radically affected his mind-set.

more here.

The Truth About Animals

Zoe Lescaze at The NY Times:

Humans have long trapped animals in cages, nets and snares, but the tangled webs of vanity, curiosity, cruelty and fear we cast over other creatures may be even more perilous. We see our virtues and vices reflected in animals — hardworking beavers, indolent sloths, innocent lambs, greedy vultures — through a glass darkly. But these well-worn clichés blind us to a world far more dazzling and varied, according to Lucy Cooke, the acclaimed zoology-trained author and documentary filmmaker, in her new book, “The Truth About Animals.” As she writes, “Painting the animal kingdom with our artificial ethical brush denies us the astonishing diversity of life, in all of its blood-drinking, sibling-eating, corpse-shagging glory.” (Yes, corpse shagging. The penguin portion is not for the faint of heart.)

more here.

Bullshit Jobs and the myth of capitalist efficiency

Elaine Glaser at The Guardian:

As well as documenting personal misery, this book is a portrait of a society that has forgotten what it is for. Our economies have become “vast engines for producing nonsense”. Utopian ideals have been abandoned on all sides, replaced by praise for “hardworking families”. The rightwing injunction to “get a job!” is mirrored by the leftwing demand for “more jobs!”

Rather than directing our frustration at the system itself, we let it curdle into resentment towards workers with less bullshit jobs. Thus the hated “liberal elite” are those who get paid to indulge in such compelling and glamorous activities that many people would undertake them for free. Yet even members of that dwindling caste dutifully take on more and more paperwork, in a gesture of warped solidarity with their colleagues in admin. The problem of bullshit jobs has a lot to do with the problem of bureaucracy, the subject of Graeber’s previous book The Utopia of Rules.

more here.

Time to abandon grand ethical theories?

Julian Baggini in the Times Literary Supplement:

Ethics today is in a curious state. There is no shortage of people telling us that Western civilization is facing a moral crisis, that the old foundation of Christianity has been removed but nothing has been put in its place. Christian writers such as Alister McGrath and Nick Spencer have warned that we’re running on the moral capital of a religion we’ve long abandoned. It’s only a matter of time before, like Wile E. Coyote, we realize we’ve run off a moral cliff, impossibly suspended in mid-air only as long as we fail to realize there’s nothing under our feet.

One supposed sign of this malaise is that scepticism about morality has never been higher. University philosophy lecturers consistently report that their new undergraduates tend to arrive assuming that all thinking people are moral relativists who believe that what’s right for some is wrong for others and that’s all there is to be said for it. Psychology has fuelled this scepticism, with researchers like Joshua Greene arguing that most moral judgements come straight from the “hot” amygdala, not the “cool” prefrontal cortex. On this account, moral principles are post-facto rationalizations of emotional reactions.

Yet for such a sickly beast, ethics is energetically at work everywhere. You may doubt the sincerity of corporate social responsibility but the very fact that every reasonably sized company feels the need to demonstrate it says something about public expectations.

More here.

NASA’s EM-drive is a magnetic WTF-thruster

Chris Lee in Ars Technica:

It was bound to happen eventually. A group of researchers that may actually be competent and well-funded is investigating alternative thrust concepts. This includes our favorite, the WTF-thrusterEM-drive, as well as something called a Mach-Effect thruster. The results, presented at Space Propulsion 2018, are pretty much as expected: a big fat meh.

The key motivation behind all of this is that rocket technology largely sucks for getting people around the Solar System. And it sucks even worse as soon as you consider the problem of interstellar travel. The result is that good people spend a lot of time eliminating even the most far-fetched ideas. The EM-drive is a case in point. It’s basically a truncated hollow copper cone that you feed electromagnetic radiation into. The radiation bounces around in the cone. And, by some physics-defying magic, unicorns materialize to push you through space.

Well, that explanation is at least as plausible as any of the others. There is no physics explaining how this could work, but some people at NASA have claimed that it does.

More here.  [Thanks to Sean Carroll.]

My Preferred Pronouns?

Justin E. H. Smith in his blog:

I was at an academic conference last week, somewhere in America, where we were invited by our hosts to place a ‘preferred pronoun’ sticker on our nametags. “If you could pick one of those up during the next break, we’d appreciate it.” The options were, ‘He’, ‘She’, ‘They’, ‘Ask Me’, and one with a blank space for a write-in. Coming from my adoptive France, I had heard of this new practice in my country of origin, but somehow I had convinced myself that it was mostly mythical. Yet there were the stickers, and there were all my fellow participants, wearing them with straight faces.

I did not pick one up. As is my practice at these events, I do not even wear the nametag that has been provided for me, so there would have been nothing to put the sticker on. But if there had been any direct and explicit pressure on me to wear one, rather than just a general announcement, I would have been constrained to explicitly refuse to do what was being asked of me. I would have been a conscientious objector.

In the future I will avoid meetings at which I know in advance, or I have a reasonable expectation, that there will be such stickers. I am strongly opposed to this convention, I think it is ridiculous and offensive, and I am only thankful that, for now, it is only a convention and not a compulsion. But the line is not so clear. It is not a compulsion for me to wear a sticker, because I am privileged and basically indifferent as to whether I ever get invited to an academic event again. The quality of my life is enhanced by not going to academic events, and reduced by going to them. If I can’t go because social pressure would require me to wear a sticker, well, tant mieux. But this is not the case for younger scholars who are precariously employed. It is in part for their sake that I feel the need to make explicit my opposition to this practice.

More here.

Break the Art Fair

Jerry Saltz at New York Magazine:

As a system, art fairs are like America: They’re broken and no one knows how to fix them. Like America, they also benefit those at the very top more than anyone else, and this gap is only growing. Like America, the art world is preoccupied by spectacle — which means nonstop art fairs, biennials, and other blowouts. Yet the place where new art comes from, where it is seen for free and where almost all the risk and innovation takes place — medium and smaller galleries – are ever pressured by rising art fair costs, shrinking attendance and business at the gallery itself, rents, and overhead. This art-fair industrial complex makes it next to impossible for any medium/small gallery to take a chance on bringing unknown or lower-priced artists to art fairs without risking major financial losses. Meanwhile high-end galleries clean up without showing much, if anything, that’s risky or innovative.

more here.

‘Come Sunday’ Considers The Price of Self-Doubt

Kelly J. Baker at The Baffler:

COME SUNDAY, A FILM RELEASED last month by Netflix and a production of NPR’s This American Life, claims in its short description to concern a “crisis of faith.” It’s based on the true story of Bishop Carlton Pearson, a black Pentecostal minister, and his radical shift in theology from fear, damnation, and a fallen world to forgiveness, inclusion, and hope. It’s an intriguing premise for a film, especially in this moment where pundits consider over and over why white evangelicals continue to support President Trump despite his moral bankruptcy. Politics, it would seem, matter more than faith. Toeing the party line becomes a virtue, and questioning one’s political allegiances and theology seems almost unimaginable. And yet, this intense, intimate, and quiet film—starring powerhouse actors like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Glover, and Martin Sheen—centers on a moral crisis and catalogs the angst of uncertainty for a man that always appeared certain.

more here.

Jordan Peterson’s failed antidote for ‘toxic masculine despair’

Kate Manne at the TLS:

Each of the ensuing chapters of 12 Rules is a series of meditations – or, less kindly, digressions – leading up to its titular rule, presented as the solution to a problem revealed therein about life and how to make order out of chaos. The chaos is in turn presented as a universal, ahistorical fact about the nature of Being or human existence. Given all this, it is striking how many of the discussions reduce to advice about how to win at something, anything, nothing in particular: and how not to be a “loser”, in relation to others whose similarity to oneself is secured by the time-honoured narrative device of anthropomorphization, under a more or less thin veneer of scientism. Rule One is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”, to avoid seeming like a “loser lobster”, who shrinks from conflict and grows sad, sickly and loveless – and is prone to keep on losing, which is portrayed as a disaster.

more here.

That Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid? It Triggered Global Warming, Too

Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic:

A man views an animatronic life-size dinosaur ahead of an interactive exhibition, Jurassic Kingdom, at Osterley Park in west London, Britain, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville – RC130E7CDB60

It took, at most, several seconds. An enormous hunk of rock, roughly the size of Manhattan, came whirling out of the vastness of space. It pierced Earth’s thin atmosphere, ignited as it fell, and slammed into the crust, opening a crater 20 miles deep in modern-day Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Of course, it killed the non-avian dinosaurs: How could it not? By its end, the cataclysm wiped out 75 percent of all species that dwelled on Earth. In the last quarter century, we have gotten used to seeing images of that catastrophe: of the hellfire that rained down to Earth, igniting massive forest fires; of the years-long “impact winter” that dimmed the sun and chilled the Earth. But less well-known is what followed that winter. Scientists believe that the asteroid, which struck Earth roughly 66 million years ago, eventually triggered a lengthy period of ferocious global warming. Upon impact, it vaporized solid limestone into gas, and it incinerated enormous swaths of forest. This unleashed so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere so quickly that, across all of Earth’s history, its rate of increase seems to be rivaled only by recent carbon pollution from factories, cars, planes, and modern industry.

A study published Thursday in Science finds new evidence of that warming while setting it in a dreadful context. It may have taken seconds for the asteroid to chew a 20-mile-deep hole in Earth. But, its authors say, it took roughly 100,000 years for Earth’s climate to return to normal. The research argues that Earth’s average temperature was elevated by 5 degrees Celsius for the 100 millennia that followed the impact. Notably, it supports this assertion not just with computer models, but with direct, observed evidence from the time period. By analyzing the bones of fish that lived in modern-day Tunisia before, during, and after the impact, scientists were able to detect a planet-sweltering warming signal.

More here.