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.

The Empty Brain

Robert Epstein in Global Research:

No matter how hard they try, brain scientists and cognitive psychologists will never find a copy of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in the brain – or copies of words, pictures, grammatical rules or any other kinds of environmental stimuli. The human brain isn’t really empty, of course. But it does not contain most of the things people think it does – not even simple things such as ‘memories’.

Our shoddy thinking about the brain has deep historical roots, but the invention of computers in the 1940s got us especially confused. For more than half a century now, psychologists, linguists, neuroscientists and other experts on human behaviour have been asserting that the human brain works like a computer. To see how vacuous this idea is, consider the brains of babies. Thanks to evolution, human neonates, like the newborns of all other mammalian species, enter the world prepared to interact with it effectively. A baby’s vision is blurry, but it pays special attention to faces, and is quickly able to identify its mother’s. It prefers the sound of voices to non-speech sounds, and can distinguish one basic speech sound from another. We are, without doubt, built to make social connections. A healthy newborn is also equipped with more than a dozen reflexes – ready-made reactions to certain stimuli that are important for its survival. It turns its head in the direction of something that brushes its cheek and then sucks whatever enters its mouth. It holds its breath when submerged in water. It grasps things placed in its hands so strongly it can nearly support its own weight. Perhaps most important, newborns come equipped with powerful learning mechanisms that allow them to change rapidly so they can interact increasingly effectively with their world, even if that world is unlike the one their distant ancestors faced.

Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.

But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.

We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representationsof visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not. Computers, quite literally, process information – numbers, letters, words, formulas, images. The information first has to be encoded into a format computers can use, which means patterns of ones and zeroes (‘bits’) organised into small chunks (‘bytes’). On my computer, each byte contains 8 bits, and a certain pattern of those bits stands for the letter d, another for the letter o, and another for the letter g. Side by side, those three bytes form the word dog. One single image – say, the photograph of my cat Henry on my desktop – is represented by a very specific pattern of a million of these bytes (‘one megabyte’), surrounded by some special characters that tell the computer to expect an image, not a word.

More here.

Friday Poem

Emergency Measures

I take Saturday’s unpopulated trains,
sitting at uncontagious distances,
change at junctions of low body count, in off-hours,
and on national holidays especially, shun stadia
and other zones of efficient kill ratio,
since there is no safety anymore in numbers.

I wear the dull colors of nesting birds,
invest modestly in diverse futures,
views and moods undiscovered by tourists,
buy nothing I can’t carry or would need to sell,
and since I must rest, maintain at several addresses
hardened electronics and three months of water.
And it is thus I favor this unspecific café,
choose the bitterest roast, and only the first sip
of your story, sweet but so long, and poignantly limited
by appointments neither can be late for, and why now
I will swim through the crowd to the place it is flowing away from,
my concerned look and Excuse me excuse me suggesting
I am hurrying back for my umbrella or glasses
or some thrilling truth they have all completely missed.

by James Richardson
 By the Numbers

CLR James rejected the posturing of identity politics

Ralph Leonard in UnHerd:

“I denounce European colonialism”, wrote CLR James in 1980, “but I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilisation.” A Marxist revolutionary and Pan-Africanist, a historian and novelist, an icon of black liberation and die-hard cricket fan, a classicist and lover of popular culture, Cyril Lionel Roberts James, described by V.S Naipaul as “the master of all topics”, was one of the great (yet grossly underrated) intellectuals of the 20th century.

He was one of the few Leftist intellectuals – as Christopher Hitchens once said about George Orwell – who was simultaneously on the right side of the three major questions of the 20th century: Fascism, Stalinism and Imperialism. But today his praise for ‘Western culture’ would probably be dismissed as a slightly embarrassing residue of a barely concealed ‘Eurocentrism”’

Sophie Zhang in a recent column for Varsity entitled “Not all literature is ‘universal’ – nor does it have to be”, writes that:

“The study of English Literature… has often centred around texts that claim to explore ‘universal’ themes and experiences. Yet what such curricula fail to recognise is that in glorifying the universal, we neglect the particular, because to focus on the ‘Western’ canon would be to ‘to centre whiteness and continually place non-white voices on the margins’”.

Implicit in this view is that only “whiteness” could have access to the universal, and those outside of “whiteness” are intrinsically on the margins, and their views are necessarily “particular”.

Similarly, James’s admiration for Western culture and the Western canon is something many black radicals, who otherwise admire James for his opposition to colonialism, struggle to understand about him. It is rather fashionable, and almost expected, that to be a ‘proper’ black radical today is to be hostile to all that is designated as Western; it is to indiscriminately dismiss the Enlightenment as “white” and “racist”, and disparage the Western canon as not being “relevant” to black people.

More here.

The Cure For Racism Is Cancer

Tony Hoagland (who died two days ago at age 64) in The Sun:

The woman sitting next to me in the waiting room is wearing a blue dashiki, a sterile paper face mask to protect her from infection, and a black leather Oakland Raiders baseball cap. I look down at her brown, sandaled feet and see that her toenails are the color of green papaya, glossy and enameled.

This room at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, is full of people of different ages, body types, skin colors, religious preferences, mother tongues, and cultural backgrounds. Standing along one wall, in work boots, denim overalls, and a hunter’s camouflage hat, is a white rancher in his forties. Nervously, he shifts from foot to foot, a styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand. An elderly Chinese couple sit side by side, silently studying their phones. The husband is watching a video. The wife is the sick one, pale and gaunt. Her head droops as if she is fighting sleep. An African American family occupies a corner. They are wearing church clothes; the older kids are supervising the younger ones while two grown women lean into their conversation and a man — fiftyish, in a gray sports coat — stares into space.

America, that old problem of yours? Racism? I have a cure for it: Get cancer. Come into these waiting rooms and clinics, the cold radiology units and the ICUcubicles. Take a walk down Leukemia Lane with a strange pain in your lower back and an uneasy sense of foreboding. Make an appointment for your CATscan. Wonder what you are doing here among all these sick people: the retired telephone lineman, the grandmother, the junior-high-school soccer coach, the mother of three.

More here.