What arguments for a more humane approach to war conceal

Samuel Moyn in The New Republic:

The killing of other human beings in war makes graphic an abiding moral dilemma: You might try to make an evil less outrageous, or you might try to get rid of it altogether—but it is not clear that it is possible to do both at the same time. In one of her Twenty-One Love Poems, Adrienne Rich imagines imposing controls on the use of force until it all but disappears: “Such hands might carry out an unavoidable violence / with such restraint,” she writes, “with such a grasp / of the range and limits of violence / that violence ever after would be obsolete.” Yet the lines contradict themselves: If violence is inevitable, however contained or humane, it is not gone.

Nick McDonell’s striking new book about America’s forever war, The Bodies in Person, is a call to contain or minimize one kind of outrageous violence: the killing of civilians in America’s contemporary wars, fought since 9/11 across an astonishing span of the earth. At a moment when Donald Trump has relaxed controls on American killing abroad even beyond what McDonell chronicles and our long-term proxy war in Yemen has broken into gross atrocities—like the Saudi air strike that killedscores of civilians in early August this year—it is a pressing theme.

More here.

Trump, Populists and the Rise of Right-Wing Globalization

Quinn Slobodian in the New York Times:

In a recent speech at the United Nations, President Trump railed against “the ideology of globalism” and “unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy.”

For those of us who came of age in the 1990s, there was an eerie sense of déjà vu. Then, too, there were protests against global institutions insulated from democratic decision-making. In the most iconic confrontation, my college classmates helped scupper the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999.

The movement called for “alter-globalization” — a different kind of globalization more attentive to labor and minority rights, the environment and economic equality. Two decades later, traces of that movement are hard to find. But something surprising has happened in the meantime. A new version of alter-globalization has won — from the right.

We often hear that world politics is divided between open versus closed societies, between globalists and nationalists. But these analyses obscure the real challenge to the status quo.

More here.

Testing paternity: Colm Tóibín on the fathers that shaped Wilde, Joyce and Yeats

Fintan O’Toole in New Statesman:

All women become like their mothers,” says Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest. “That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.” Left hanging there, of course, is the implication that the son’s tragedy is that he becomes like his father instead. In Oscar Wilde’s own case, that might not have been such a terrible thing, at least for his creative productivity. Colm Tóibín’s sparkling little book on Sir William Wilde, WB Yeats’s father John and James Joyce’s father John Stanislaus, seems originally to have been called “Prodigal Fathers” – the phantom title appears on the inside flap of the cover. It may have been dropped because of Sir William, for whom the word – with its implications of wasted talent – is a poor fit. But it certainly works for John Butler Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce. And yet the joy of Tóibín’s erudite, subtle, witty and often deeply moving biographical essays is that one generation’s paternal prodigality can become the next generation’s powerhouse of neurotic energy.

The Oedipal force is at least as strong in Irish male writing as it is in Star Wars. It is not, of course, uniquely so. Oedipus, so far as we know, did not come from Dublin and nor did Turgenev, Edmund Gosse or Edward St Aubyn. But if parricide is an imported taste, it is, like tea-drinking, one that appealed greatly to the native palate. In the quintessential Irish play, John Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, Christy Mahon kills his father twice and, at least the first time, is idolised for his boldness. Bernard Shaw had such contempt for his father that he dropped his own given name George because it was a paternal inheritance. “I don’t want to be a father,” says the Dauphin in Saint Joan, “And I don’t want to be a son.” Shaw spent the insurance money from poor George Shaw’s death on a new Jaeger suit and a packet of condoms. George Moore, in Confessions of a Young Man, expresses a similar sense of liberation on his father’s death. Indeed, one of the many things that makes Samuel Beckett stand out from his peers among the Irish modernist immortals, is that he loved his father and might, at least at times and at least in his imagination, happily have killed his mother.

More here.

Can technology soothe our nerves?

Jonathan Beckman in 1843 Magazine:

This year’s broiling summer made us Brits climate-change enthusiasts and environmental doom-mongers in quick succession. First came delight at the disappearance of the traditional rhythms of the English summer. Barbecues no longer sputtered out with the advent of a tensely awaited shower. Sogginess, the traditional texture of the British family trying to enjoy itself outdoors, dried out. Tedium followed, as the parks, which at the start of the season had seemed so welcoming, began to resemble a desolate dustbowl from “The Grapes of Wrath”. And then came despair. It wasn’t the days that were so bad. Most offices have serviceable air-conditioning. But the nights were stagnant, breezeless hellscapes as British homes, whose cavity walls had been obediently filled with mineral fibre and formaldehyde foam to retain every last whisper of heat during the winter, turned into bakeries. Sleep evaporated along with everything else and the simplest tasks became cryptic. I stood in front of my front door flummoxed when faced with two locks that need opening with different keys. Anxiety levels rose and tempers frayed.

In short, it was the perfect time to try out kit designed to reduce stress. Pip is a stress-management device that responds to the electric conductivity of the skin. Egg-shaped, with two gold-plated sensors, it looks like the kind of magic totem that would see a posse of hobbits turn up on your doorstep with a thieving glint in their eyes. Part of Pip’s usefulness is measuring stress as you pinch the device for a couple of minutes between the thumb and forefinger. In a brief span of time, I managed to experience 40 “relaxing events” and 24 “stress events”, which makes my life sound far more enjoyable and eventful than it actually is. There were also 21 “steady events”. I’m not really sure what these can have been beyond a flurry of micro-naps so brief they entirely passed me by.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Judicial Temperament

Thurgood whispers in Sonia’s ears

             You know they said the same things about me?
Master two languages, graduate at the top
They still sneer and drawl
about how ‘qualified’ you are.”

Si, asi siempre es. she sighs.

The only quality the senators want is a mirror on the bench.

I await the sounds of Sotomayor
Rolling her Rs through oral arguments
Putting the Latin tenses in all the right places
Ruffling the feathers of the old birds
who learned their pronunciation second hand.

Inter rusticos
In forma pauperis
In flagrante delicto.

by Dan Vera
from Split This Rock


Thurgood Marshall: first black US Supreme Court justice
Sonia Sotomayer: first Hispanic US Supreme Court Justice

Why the novel matters in the age of anger

Elif Shafak in the New Statesman:

I was an only child raised by a divorced, working, well-educated, secularist, Westernised mother and an uneducated, spiritual, Eastern grandmother. Born in France, I moved to Turkey with my mother when my parents’ marriage came to an end. Although I was small when I left Strasbourg, I often think about our little flat and remember it as a place full of French, Italian, Turkish, Algerian, Lebanese leftist students who passionately discussed the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, read poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky and collectively dreamt about the Revolution. From there I was zoomed to my Grandma’s neighbourhood in Ankara – a very patriarchal and very conservative-Muslim environment. Back then, in the late 1970s, there was increasing political violence and turmoil in Turkey. Every day a bomb exploded somewhere, people got killed on the streets, there were shootings on university campuses. But inside Grandma’s house what prevailed were superstitions, evil eye beads, coffee cup readings and the oral culture of the Middle East. In all my novels there has been a continuous interest in both: the world of stories, magic and mysticism inside the house, and the world of politics, conflict, inequality and discrimination outside the window.

More here.

Mohammed Hanif’s exuberant third novel also bites with satire

Malcolm Forbes in The National:

Mohammed Hanif’s critically acclaimed, Booker Prize-longlisted debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes managed to be both a riotous thriller and a merciless political satire. Running like a red thread through its cat’s-cradle makeup of plot arcs and narrative tangents, key exploits and attendant conspiracy theories, was one main strand concerning the mysterious plane crash that killed Pakistan’s military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq.

Ten years after that brilliantly exuberant first novel – and seven years on from Hanif’s admirable but messy second, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti – comes a third, Red Birds, which again takes shape from a crashed plane.

General Zia did not walk from the wreckage of his Hercules C130, but at the start of Hanif’s new book, Major Ellie emerges unscathed from what remains of his F15 Strike Eagle. What’s more, the American pilot finds sanctuary and acquires a whole new perspective in the place he was ordered to blow up, and among the people he was instructed to kill.

More here.

A neuroscientist explains the limits and possibilities of using technology to read our thoughts

Angela Chen in The Verge:

In 2007, The New York Times published an op-ed titled “This is Your Brain on Politics.” The authors imaged the brains of swing voters and, using that information, interpreted what the voters were feeling about presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

“As I read this piece,” writes Russell Poldrack, “my blood began to boil.” Poldrack is a neuroscientist at Stanford University and the author of The New Mind Readers: What Neuroimaging Can and Cannot Reveal about Our Thoughts (out now from Princeton University Press). His research focuses on what we can learn from brain imagining techniques such as fMRI, which measures blood activity in the brain as a proxy for brain activity. And one of the clearest conclusions, he writes, is that activity in a particular brain region doesn’t actually tell us what the person is experiencing.

The Verge spoke to Poldrack about the limits and possibilities of fMRI, the fallacies that people commit in interpreting its results, and the limits of its widespread use. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

More here.

Foreign Policy for the Twenty-First Century

Daniel Bessner in the Boston Review:

On February 2, 2003, the political scientist John J. Mearsheimer published a co-authored op-ed in The New York Times that lambasted the Bush Administration’s case for invading Iraq. In a carefully laid out argument, Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, a fellow scholar of international relations, predicted that deposing Saddam Hussein would cause more problems than it solved. They argued that the dictator needed to be contained, and that preventative war was not just unnecessary, but harmful.

Of course, neither Bush nor his cronies listened, and on March 20 the Iraq War began. When it was officially wound down in December 2011 (note that we still retain thousands of U.S. troops in the country), it had cost almost $1 trillion; resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and about 4,500 U.S. soldiers; generated untold suffering amongst people who lost limbs, family members, and their mental health; and destabilized the region by empowering the Islamic State and engendering a massive refugee crisis.

More here.

A Modernism for India

Anthony Paletta in The Weekly Standard:

First-time visitors to India are often struck by the abrupt contrasts in the built environment. A realm of older, urban-fabric chaos—one that works extremely well in the manner that pedestrian-oriented cities do anywhere—will suddenly give way to a realm of more recent dysfunctional sprawl. Traditional urban forms in India show an adaptive response to climate and to centuries of patterns of use. But the country’s newer, road-emphasizing development applies 20th-century models of Western planning—models that we in the West have ourselves come to lament. Such urban growth patterns have unintended, undesirable consequences even in places where nearly everyone can afford a car; they can be disastrous in places like India where many people cannot. And it’s not just the road patterns that are ill suited to the country’s needs. Disregard for local circumstances also characterizes much 20th-century Indian architecture—resulting in climate-controlled structures indistinguishable in style from buildings you might see in the United States, Scandinavia, China, or Africa.Realigning contemporary design and architecture to the needs of India has been a major theme in the life’s work of B.V. Doshi. He is the winner of this year’s Pritzker Prize, often described as the Nobel Prize of architecture. It is invariably awarded to architects of great talent, most of whom are very well known. The Pritzker family fortune that funds the award was derived in large part from the Hyatt hotel chain, and the honorees tend to be the sort of starchitects whose name recognition resembles that of the chain—and whose commissions are about as widespread as its locations. Most require a map of several continents, if not the full world, to encompass their work.

By contrast, all of 91-year-old Doshi’s built works are in India. Sure, India is the seventh-largest country by geographic area and the second-most populous, but Doshi’s focus on his homeland is still radically narrow by the standards of today’s jet-set architects. When, directly after his Pritzker Prize acceptance lecture, he was asked in a Q&A whether he regretted “not having built in other countries,” his reply was a simple “No.”

More here.

Arundhati Roy’s Fascinating Mess

Parul Sehgal in The Atlantic:

On the night she won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her novel, The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy had a strange and frightening dream. She was a fish being ripped from the water by a bony emerald hand. A voice instructed her to make a wish. Put me back, she responded. She knew she was on the cusp of cataclysmic fame, she later said an interview. She knew her life would explode—“I’d pay a heavy price.” She has. It is almost impossible to see Roy clearly through the haze of adulation, condescension, outrage, and celebrity that has enveloped her since the publication of The God of Small Things, a gothic about an illicit intercaste romance in South India. She was feted as a symbol of an ascending India, paraded along with bomb makers and beauty queens. Much was made of the author’s looks—she was named one of People magazine’s most beautiful people—and lack of literary background; there was titillated interest in her days living in a slum and working as an aerobics instructor. Praise for her novel was extravagant—she was compared to Faulkner and García Márquez—but it was also frequently patronizing. “There is something childish about Roy. She has a heightened capacity for wonder”—this from one of the judges who awarded her the Booker Prize. (Meanwhile, a writer who had judged the Booker the previous year publicly called the book “execrable,” and the award a disgrace.)

Roy appeared to want no part of any of this. She chopped off her hair after the Booker win, telling The New York Times she didn’t want to be known “as some pretty woman who wrote a book,” and donated her prize money to the Narmada Bachao Andolan, a group protesting the construction of a series of dams that threatened to displace millions of villagers. She turned her attention from fiction to people’s movements all over India—Kashmiris resisting the Indian military’s occupation, tribal communities fighting to protect their ancestral lands. She decried India’s nuclear testing (a source of much national pride at the time) and became an outspoken critic of America’s war in Afghanistan. She was praised for her commitment and derided for her naïveté, and faced charges of obscenity and sedition (later dropped). She was invited to model khakis for Gap (she declined) and to march through the forests of central India with Maoist insurgents (she accepted).

More here.

Saturday Poem

senses of heritage

my grandpa waz a doughboy from carolina
the other a garveyite from lakewood
I got talked to abt the race & achievement
bout color & propriety/
nobody spoke to me about the moon

daddy talked abt music & mama bout christians
my sisters/ we
always talked & talked
there waz never quiet
trees were status symbols

I’ve taken to fog/
the moon still surprisin me

by Ntozake Shange
from Nappy Edges
St. Martin’s Press, 1972

Jewish Girls in Medieval Egypt

Amit Gvaryahu at Marginalia:

The Genizah is a trove of Hebrew documents that were found largely intact in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo. For many reasons, the more celebrated part of the Genizah among contemporary scholars is what we could term its “literary” component: old Hebrew books of many kinds, scrolls and codices, with writings both sacred and secular. Throughout the 20th century, scholars were excited to publish new works of ancient rabbis for instance, or for the first time, their opponents from the first century BCE or the 9th century CE. But the Genizah did not only include literary materials, it was the repository for anything with Hebrew lettering in medieval Fustāt. Letters and legal documents abound. Scholastic interest in this “documentary” Genizah took some time to mature, but its cataloguing and scrutiny in recent decades has yielded a wealth of fine-grained information that medievalists specializing in other geographic areas can only dream of.

more here.

A Conversation about Criticism

William Giraldi and Anthony Domestico at Commonweal:

When I suggest a nexus between style and morality I mean always to keep the query centered on the book, to interrogate the book’s moral vision as it is activated in language. That vision, like everything else in the writer’s arsenal, is manifest in style. Language is our fullest, most accurate embodiment of mind. How you write is how you think, and there’s reciprocity there, a fertile feedback loop, because the writing in turn sharpens the thinking, which in turn sharpens the writing. This is what Goethe means by “a writer’s style is a true reflection of his inner life.” Remember, too, Nabokov’s oft-cited line: “Style is matter.” He means that style is not something gummed onto prose after the fact—style is the fact. Style is born of subject. Robert Penn Warren makes a similar observation: “The style of a writer represents his stance toward experience.” That’s what Auden means in his second consideration above.

more here.

The Life of Charles de Gaulle

Seamus Deane at the Dublin Review of Books:

The French people are constantly hauled on to a Corneille-like stage with and by de Gaulle, two characters in search of a destiny, with soliloquies, debates, monologues, conducted in newspapers, radio and television although, such is the nature of a biography, “the people” are really the audience that listens and is moulded, enchanted or aroused to sublimity by the suasion of that resonant, nasal, rhythmic voice. As was noticed on several occasions, de Gaulle was a traditional Catholic Christian; he rarely spoke of or even mentioned God but rarely failed to speak instead of France, the great stained-glass rose window in which the divine light had glowed through the centuries in radiance or in sombre melancholy, picking out at irregular intervals the ranged silhouettes of a Clovis, a Charlemagne, an Henri IV, a Joan of Arc, Louis XI, a Colbert, Richelieu, Louis XIV (or his great general Louvois), a Napoleon and, at last, a de Gaulle. Régis Debray in 1990 is quoted: “In my dreams I am on terms of easy familiarity with Louis XI, with Lenin, with Edison and Lincoln. But I quail before de Gaulle. He is the Great Other, the inaccessible absolute … Napoleon was the great political myth of the nineteenth century; de Gaulle of the twentieth. The sublime, it seems, appears in France only once a century.” Debray had once regarded Mitterrand as a saviour ‑ rather hard to believe now in any retrospective light ‑ but this literary-political canonisation would have pleased de Gaulle, for he certainly believed it to be true, true as only a myth can be.

more here.

Frederick Douglass’s Moral Crusade

Eric Foner at The Nation:

Douglass’s current status as a national hero poses a challenge for the biographer, making it difficult to view him dispassionately. Moreover, those who seek to tell his story must compete with their subject’s own version of it. Douglass published three autobiographies, among the greatest works of this genre in American literature. They present not only a powerful indictment of slavery, but also a tale of extraordinary individual achievement (it is no accident that Douglass’s most frequently delivered lecture was titled “Self-Made Men”). Like all autobiographies, however, Douglass’s were simultaneously historical narratives and works of the imagination. As David Blight notes in his new book, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, some passages in them—especially those relating to Douglass’s childhood—are “almost pure invention,” which means the biographer must resist the temptation to take these books entirely at face value.

more here.

Women, Weaving and History

Kassia St Clair at the TLS:

The cultural association between women and the manufacture of textiles runs deep. Many of the deities associated with spinning and weaving are female: Neith in pre-Dynastic Egypt; Grecian Athena; the Norse goddess Frigg and the Chinese Silkworm Goddess. Skill with needle, thread or a loom was seen in many cultures as an intrinsic part of a woman’s value. In Greece, the birth of a baby girl was sometimes marked by placing a tuft of wool by the door of a home. And Homer wrote that when his countrymen raided towns and villages they killed the men they encountered, but women were spared in order to spin and weave in captivity. The “distaff side” was a traditional English term for the maternal side of a family. Women the world over were buried with spindles and distaffs, the very tools they wielded so dexterously and for so many hours in life. Sarah Arderne, a member of the lesser gentry in northern England in the late eighteenth century, bought muslin for her husband’s cravats and handkerchief and supervised the laundering of all his linens. She was pretty typical: it wasn’t unusual for men of this class and period to live and die without ever taking responsibility for their own shirts.

more here.

Strange and intelligent

Christy Wampole in Aeon:

Simone Weil (1909-43) belonged to a species so rare, it had only one member. This peculiar French philosopher and mystic diagnosed the maladies and maledictions of her own age and place – Europe in the first war-torn half of the 20th century – and offered recommendations for how to forestall the repetition of its iniquities: totalitarianism, income inequality, restriction of free speech, political polarisation, the alienation of the modern subject, and more. Her combination of erudition, political and spiritual fervour, and commitment to her ideals adds weight to the distinctive diagnosis she offers of modernity. Weil has been dead now for 75 years but remains able to tell us much about ourselves. Born to a secular Jewish family in Paris, she was gifted from the beginning with a thirst for knowledge of other cultures and her own. Fluent in Ancient Greek by the age of 12, she taught herself Sanskrit, and took an interest in Hinduism and Buddhism. She excelled at the Lycée Henri IV and the École normale supérieure, where she studied philosophy. Plato was a lasting influence, and her interest in political philosophy led her to Karl Marx, whose thought she esteemed but did not blindly assimilate.

As a Christian convert who criticised the Catholic Church and as a communist sympathiser who denounced Stalinism and confronted Trotsky over hazardous party developments, Weil’s independence of mind and resistance to ideological conformity are central to her philosophy. In addition to her intelligence, other aspects of her biography have captured the public’s imagination. As a child during the First World War, she refused sugar because soldiers on the front could have none. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, she died at 34 when working for the resistance government France libre in London, refusing to eat more than the citizens’ rations of her German-occupied France. Teachers and classmates called her the Martian and the Red Virgin, nicknames suggestive of her strangeness and asexuality. A philosopher who refused to cloister herself behind academia’s walls, she worked in factories and vineyards, and left France during the Spanish Civil War to fight alongside the Durruti Column anarchists, a failed mission in many respects.

Several mystical experiences, including Weil’s discovery of the poem ‘Love (III)’ by the 17th-century poet George Herbert led her to embrace Christianity, and many have called for her canonisation as a saint. In her book Devotion (2017), the Francophile poet and punk-rock star Patti Smith described Weil as ‘an admirable model for a multitude of mindsets. Brilliant and privileged, she coursed through the great halls of higher learning, forfeiting all to embark on a difficult path of revolution, revelation, public service, and sacrifice.’ The French politician Charles de Gaulle thought Weil was mad, while the authors Albert Camus, André Gide and T S Eliot recognised her as one of the greatest minds of her time.

More here.

Where People Turn When Nobody Can Diagnose Their Illness

Shayla Love in Tonic:

When something in the body goes wrong, we see a doctor, get examined, get swabbed or draw blood, and usually leave with an answer. But for many patients and families, medical examination doesn’t lead to a diagnosis—and what do they do then? A paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week covers the progress of the Undiagnosed Disease Network (UDN), a collection of sites around the country where people can turn when there are no more specialists to see and no more conventional tests to run, to find answers to their health mysteries. The UDN was inspired by a 2008 program called the Undiagnosed Diseases Program (UDP) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center, which was quickly overwhelmed by patients seeking their services. The UDN was formed in 2014 and is made of 12 sites across the country. They also have two sequencing centers, a group of people who do metabolomics, or study the small molecules made by cells, and a model organisms core, which is a group of people who check genes that might be causing disease in organisms like flies and fish.

Since its inception, 1,519 patients have been referred to the UDN and 601 were accepted for evaluation. A large bulk of them, 40 percent, had a neurological condition, like Quinn. Of the 382 patients who got a complete evaluation, 132 got a diagnosis, about 35 percent. Most of those diagnoses were found through genetic testing. 21 percent of those who were diagnosed were able to make changes to their therapy, specific to their condition. As of today, the UDN has defined 31 new syndromes.

More here.