A look at the life and career of Edward Said

From Al Jazeera:

Born to affluent parents in Palestine under the British mandate in 1935, Edward W Said devoted his adult life to raising awareness of the Palestinian cause on the world stage. A literature professor at Columbia University and celebrated intellectual, “he was a scholar and an ordinary man’s person,” according to the Independent’s Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk.

A fatal diagnosis with leukaemia in 1991 prompted him to start working on Out of Place: A Memoir, a coming-of-age story of exile and a celebration of his irrecoverable past. In this masterpiece, Said rediscovers the lost Arab world of his early years in Palestine, as well as in Lebanon and Egypt.

Raised as a Protestant in a predominately Eastern Orthodox community in Jerusalem, he realised early in life that he had something of a split identity. His first name was British, his last name Arabic and he carried an American passport through his father’s US army service in the first world war.

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Women Beyond the Verge

Lidija Haas in Bookforum:

Two Southern belles on the run get catcalled one too many times by the same schlubby dude; they blow up his truck. A couple of rough-and-ready French chicks talk their way into an architect’s house—his place is “like a drawing by a well-balanced child,” as is his smug, suave, symmetrical mug—and point their Smith & Wessons at him, all the while admiring both his book collection and his calm under pressure. “It’s clear to me,” one of them tells him affectionately, “that you stand out from our past encounters.” Then she shoots him in the face. “Get your fucking hands off me, goddamn it!” yells a leader of the National Women’s Political Caucus at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, addressing the member of the white-guy network-news crowd who is trying to restrain her as she rages over their failure to cover her group’s contributions. “The next son of a bitch that touches a woman is gonna get kicked in the balls.” A ten-year-old African American girl, menaced by a white boy, picks up a chunk of brick and aims it at him. When an avowed pussy-grabber tries to win a presidential debate against his female opponent by trotting out a bunch of women who’ve accused her husband of rape and other misconduct, a woman journalist takes to cable news to defend her beloved historic candidate, “shaking and red-faced with rage.”

Furious women make for good montage. It’s true that the examples above are angry for very different reasons and channel their anger in very different ways; it’s also true that the first two scenarios are fictional. Still, together they give you a glimpse of the kinds of pleasures and frustrations on offer for readers of Good and Mad, journalist Rebecca Traister’s reported manifesto on feminism after Trump. Traister’s thesis seems at first a seductively straightforward one. She argues that the rage of “nonwhite non-men” as a political force has so far not been given anywhere near its due in American history and culture, that it has been responsible for a significant portion of progressive change in this country, and thus that the newish angry-woman constituencies fired up by the 2016 election (many of them white and comfortably off) are part of a proud lineage, and should be celebrated and encouraged. It’s an intriguing double move—giving women of color their rightful, pioneering place in feminist and progressive history while also insisting on the automatic right of white liberal feminists to be directly identified with a more radical tradition.

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Is the Aeneid a Celebration of Empire—or a Critique?

Daniel Mendelsohn in The New Yorker:

Since the end of the first century A.D., people have been playing a game with a certain book. In this game, you open the book to a random spot and place your finger on the text; the passage you select will, it is thought, predict your future. If this sounds silly, the results suggest otherwise. The first person known to have played the game was a highborn Roman who was fretting about whether he’d be chosen to follow his cousin, the emperor Trajan, on the throne; after opening the book to this passage—

I recognize that he is that king of Rome,
Gray headed, gray bearded, who will formulate
The laws for the early city . . .

—he was confident that he’d succeed. His name was Hadrian.

Through the centuries, others sought to discover their fates in this book, from the French novelist Rabelais, in the early sixteenth century (some of whose characters play the game, too), to the British king Charles I, who, during the Civil War—which culminated in the loss of his kingdom and his head—visited an Oxford library and was alarmed to find that he’d placed his finger on a passage that concluded, “But let him die before his time, and lie / Somewhere unburied on a lonely beach.” Two and a half centuries later, as the Germans marched toward Paris at the beginning of the First World War, a classicist named David Ansell Slater, who had once viewed the very volume that Charles had consulted, found himself scouring the same text, hoping for a portent of good news.

What was the book, and why was it taken so seriously? The answer lies in the name of the game: sortes vergilianae. The Latin noun sortes means lots—as in “drawing lots,” a reference to the game’s element of chance. The adjective vergilianae, which means “having to do with Vergilius,” identifies the book: the works of the Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro, whom we know as Virgil. For a long stretch of Western history, few people would have found it odd to ascribe prophetic power to this collection of Latin verse. Its author, after all, was the greatest and the most influential of all Roman poets. A friend and confidant of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, Virgil was already considered a classic in his own lifetime: revered, quoted, imitated, and occasionally parodied by other writers, taught in schools, and devoured by the general public. Later generations of Romans considered his works a font of human knowledge, from rhetoric to ethics to agriculture; by the Middle Ages, the poet had come to be regarded as a wizard whose powers included the ability to control Vesuvius’s eruptions and to cure blindness in sheep.

However fantastical the proportions to which this reverence grew, it was grounded in a very real achievement represented by one poem in particular: the Aeneid, a heroic epic in twelve chapters (or “books”) about the mythic founding of Rome, which some ancient sources say Augustus commissioned and which was, arguably, the single most influential literary work of European civilization for the better part of two millennia.

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The Ethical Quandary of Human Infection Studies

Linda Nordling in Undark:

In February of last year, 64 healthy adult Kenyans checked into a university residence in the coastal town of Kilifi. After a battery of medical tests, they proceeded, one by one, into a room where a doctor injected them with live malaria parasites. Left untreated, the infection could have sickened or even killed them, since malaria claims hundreds of thousands of lives every year.

But the volunteers — among them casual laborers, subsistence farmers, and young mothers from nearby villages — were promised treatment as soon as infection took hold. They spent the next few weeks sleeping, eating, and socializing together under the watchful eye of scientists, giving regular blood samples and undergoing physical exams. Some grew sick within a couple of weeks, and were treated and cleared of the parasite before being sent home. Those who did not fall ill were treated after three weeks as a precaution and discharged, too.

As compensation, the volunteers received between $300 and $480 each, or roughly $20 a day, a rate based on the minimum wage for casual laborers in Kenya and the out-of-pocket allowance set for overnight stays by KEMRI, the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

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Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Lisa Aziz-Zadeh on Embodied Cognition, Mirror Neurons, and Empathy

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

Brains are important things; they’re where thinking happens. Or are they? The theory of “embodied cognition” posits that it’s better to think of thinking as something that takes place in the body as a whole, not just in the cells of the brain. In some sense this is trivially true; our brains interact with the rest of our bodies, taking in signals and giving back instructions. But it seems bold to situate important elements of cognition itself in the actual non-brain parts of the body. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh is a psychologist and neuroscientist who uses imaging technologies to study how different parts of the brain and body are involved in different cognitive tasks. We talk a lot about mirror neurons, those brain cells that light up both when we perform an action ourselves and when we see someone else performing the action. Understanding how these cells work could be key to a better view of empathy and interpersonal interactions.

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Why Sexist and Racist Philosophers Might Still Be Admirable

Julian Baggini in The Wire:

Admiring the great thinkers of the past has become morally hazardous. Praise Immanuel Kant, and you might be reminded that he believed that ‘Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites,’ and ‘the yellow Indians do have a meagre talent’. Laud Aristotle, and you’ll have to explain how a genuine sage could have thought that ‘the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject’.

Write a eulogy to David Hume, as I recently did here, and you will be attacked for singing the praises of someone who wrote in 1753-54: ‘I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men … to be naturally inferior to the whites.’

We seem to be caught in a dilemma. We can’t just dismiss the unacceptable prejudices of the past as unimportant. But if we think that holding morally objectionable views disqualifies anyone from being considered a great thinker or a political leader, then there’s hardly anyone from history left.

The problem does not go away if you exclude dead white establishment males. Racism was common in the women’s suffrage movement on both sides of the Atlantic. The American suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt said that: ‘White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.’

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What if the Placebo Effect Isn’t a Trick?

Gary Greenberg in the New York Times:

Give people a sugar pill, they have shown, and those patients — especially if they have one of the chronic, stress-related conditions that register the strongest placebo effects and if the treatment is delivered by someone in whom they have confidence — will improve. Tell someone a normal milkshake is a diet beverage, and his gut will respond as if the drink were low fat. Take athletes to the top of the Alps, put them on exercise machines and hook them to an oxygen tank, and they will perform better than when they are breathing room air — even if room air is all that’s in the tank. Wake a patient from surgery and tell him you’ve done an arthroscopic repair, and his knee gets better even if all you did was knock him out and put a couple of incisions in his skin. Give a drug a fancy name, and it works better than if you don’t.

You don’t even have to deceive the patients. You can hand a patient with irritable bowel syndrome a sugar pill, identify it as such and tell her that sugar pills are known to be effective when used as placebos, and she will get better, especially if you take the time to deliver that message with warmth and close attention. Depression, back pain, chemotherapy-related malaise, migraine, post-traumatic stress disorder: The list of conditions that respond to placebos — as well as they do to drugs, with some patients — is long and growing.

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Yochai Benkler argues that the mainstream media is our best hope for tempering the radical right

Deborah Chasman in the Boston Review:

Deborah Chasman: The book focuses on the 2016 election and what made the public sphere so vulnerable to what you call “disinformation, propaganda, and just sheer bullshit.” You resist the idea that technology was the primary driver of that problem, that the manipulation of Facebook’s platform, the Russian intervention, and fake news led to a Trump victory. What did you find in your research that led you to challenge the now common story that extreme polarization has been technologically driven?

Yochai Benkler: What really shaped our interpretation was the data. We analyzed just under four million stories online about the election or national politics, published between April of 2015 and the one year anniversary of the Trump presidency, using Media Cloud, a media ecosystem analysis system that we at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center have been developing with our colleagues at MIT’s Center for Civic Media for a decade. We analyzed how these stories linked to each other—that is, how media producers cited one another as authority or sources, and combined these with text analysis to understand what these stories were talking about and when. These gave us insight into the supply side of political news in the United States. We also analyzed how these stories were tweeted and shared on Facebook, from which we inferred audience attention patterns; and both on the supply and demand sides, we performed network analysis to map the architecture of authority and attention in the U.S. media ecosystem. To these we added detailed case studies of particular controversies, such as how the Clinton emails or Clinton Foundation were covered, or how the Trump Russia investigation was covered during 2017. For these case studies we added text analysis of television coverage to our analysis of online communications.

The data was not what we expected.

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In the realms of gold: exploring Africa’s rich history

Alex Colville in The Spectator:

The main attraction in the Kenyan port of Mombasa is Fort Jesus, a vast, ochre-colored bastion overlooking the Indian Ocean. Dominating a dusty skyline of palm trees, minarets and tower blocks, it was erected during the opening cannonade of European empire. In 1505 a Portuguese armada sacked and torched Mombasa, shortly after its ‘discovery’ by Vasco da Gama. The fort stamped the city as theirs. The coming of the Portuguese is sometimes considered the beginning of African history — a story not about Africa itself, but about bemused Europeans exploring and taming a ‘dark’ continent. And if we look at Africa before 1505, we find a world as blank as one of da Gama’s maps. This has led many to believe, as G.W.F. Hegel did in the 1830s, that Africa ‘is no historical part of the world’.

In The Golden Rhinoceros, the French historian François-Xavier Fauvelle turns the tables. He places the arrival of the Portuguese at the end of the story, as a rude interruption of what was in fact a golden age of African civilization. But even if Fort Jesus and other imperial relics linger on, little remains today to show what had made the Portuguese covet Mombasa so much in the first place. Long vanished are the palaces and mosques built entirely of coral which attracted merchants from across the Indian Ocean, swapping Persian spices, Venetian glass and Chinese porcelain for the gold and slaves which mysteriously arrived from the continent’s interior.

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How Voltaire Went from Bastille Prisoner to Famous Playwright

Lorraine Boissoneault in Smithsonian:

François-Marie d’Arouet was the kind of precocious teen who always got invited to the best parties. Earning a reputation for his wit and catchy verses among the elites of 18th-century Paris, the young writer got himself exiled to the countryside in May 1716 for writing criticism of the ruling family. But Arouet—who would soon adopt the pen name “Voltaire”—was only getting started in his takedowns of those in power. In the coming years, those actions would have far more drastic repercussions: imprisonment for him, and a revolution for his country. And it all started with a story of incest. In 1715, the young Arouet began a daunting new project: adapting the story of Oedipus for a contemporary French audience. The ancient Greek tale chronicles the downfall of Oedipus, who fulfilled a prophecy that he would kill his father, the king of Thebes, and marry his mother. Greek playwright Sophocles wrote the earliest version of the play in his tragedy, Oedipus Rex. As recently as 1659, the famed French dramatist Pierre Corneille had adapted the play, but Arouet thought the story deserved an update, and he happened to be living at the perfect time to give it one.

On September 1, 1715, Louis XIV (also known as the “Sun King”) died without leaving a clear successor. One of the most powerful rulers in the history of France, raising its fortunes and expanding colonial holdings, Louis also dragged the country into three major wars. He centralized power in France and elevated the Catholic Church by ruthlessly persecuting French Protestants. The king’s only son predeceased him, as did his grandson. His great-grandson, at age 5, needed a regent to oversee the ruling of the state. That duty fell to Philippe Duc d’Orléans, who used his position to essentially rule the country as Regent until his own death. Philippe change the geopolitical trajectory of France, forming alliances with Austria, the Netherlands, and Great Britain. He also upended the old social order, opposing censorship and allowing once-banned books to be reprinted. The atmosphere “changed radically as the country came under the direction of a man who lived in the Palais-Royal, at the heart of Paris, and was widely known to indulge mightily in the pleasures of the table, the bottle, and the flesh—including, it was no less commonly believed, the flesh of his daughter, the duchesse de Berry,” writes Roger Pearson in Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom.

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Plight of the Funny Female

Olga Khazan in The Atlantic:

A few years ago, Laura Mickes was teaching her regular undergraduate class on childhood psychological disorders at the University of California, San Diego. It was a weighty subject, so occasionally she would inject a sarcastic comment about her own upbringing to lighten the mood. When she collected her professor evaluations at the end of the year, she was startled by one comment in particular:

“She’s not funny,” the student wrote.

Mickes realized that university students didn’t seem to welcome, or even notice, the wit of many of her female colleagues. She’s not the only one. A recent graphic made by Ben Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, analyzed the words used to describe male and female professors across 14 million reviews on RateMyProfessor.com. In every single discipline, male professors were far more likely than female ones to be described as funny.

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What Einstein meant by ‘God does not play dice’

Jim Baggott in Aeon:

The theory produces a good deal but hardly brings us closer to the secret of the Old One,’ wrote Albert Einstein in December 1926. ‘I am at all events convinced that He does not play dice.’

Einstein was responding to a letter from the German physicist Max Born. The heart of the new theory of quantum mechanics, Born had argued, beats randomly and uncertainly, as though suffering from arrhythmia. Whereas physics before the quantum had always been about doing this and getting that, the new quantum mechanics appeared to say that when we do this, we get that only with a certain probability. And in some circumstances we might get the other.

Einstein was having none of it, and his insistence that God does not play dice with the Universe has echoed down the decades, as familiar and yet as elusive in its meaning as E = mc2. What did Einstein mean by it? And how did Einstein conceive of God?

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‘The Academy Is Largely Itself Responsible for Its Own Peril’: Jill Lepore on writing the story of America

Evan Goldstein in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

The book was supposed to end with the inauguration of Barack Obama. That was Jill Lepore’s plan when she began work in 2015 on her new history of America, These Truths (W.W. Norton). She had arrived at the Civil War when Donald J. Trump was elected. Not to alter the ending, she has said, would have felt like “a dereliction of duty as a historian.”

These Truths clocks in at 789 pages (nearly 1,000 if you include the notes and index). It begins with Christopher Columbus and concludes with you-know-who. But the book isn’t a compendium; it’s an argument. The American Revolution, Lepore shows, was also an epistemological revolution. The country was built on truths that are self-evident and empirical, not sacred and God-given. “Let facts be submitted to a candid world,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. Now, it seems, our faith in facts has been shaken. These Truths traces how we got here.

Lepore occupies a rarefied perch in American letters. She is a professor at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. She has written books about King Philip’s War, Wonder Woman, and Jane Franklin, sister of Benjamin Franklin. She even co-wrote an entire novel in mock 18th-century prose. The Princeton historian Sean Wilentz has said of Lepore: “More successfully than any other American historian of her generation, she has gained a wide general readership without compromising her academic standing.”

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End Times for American Liberalism

Anis Shivani in CounterPunch:

Despite the most blatant violations of civil liberties in American history by a Republican Southern evangelical president fighting a never-ending crusade against “evil” itself, the three leading Democratic candidates for the 2008 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards make almost no mention of civil liberties as a campaign issue on their websites. The most liberal candidate, the Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, does include it at the very bottom of his list of issues, just underneath animal rights. Senators Clinton, Obama, and Edwards outdo each other speaking of their faith in their Lord and Savior, without whom they couldn’t have gotten through difficult times, and bend over backwards to “respect” the different opinions of evangelical voters, on such issues as “intelligent design” or the preservation of adult stem-cell embryos. Clinton voted not only to authorize the Patriot Act (which gutted civil liberties in 2001), but to reauthorize it in 2006. The Democratic candidates vow to hunt down the terrorists and kill them, and to show no tolerance for illegal immigrants, as they speak a language of economic populism focused on the anxieties of the declining middle-class. And all this comes at a time when the self-destructive acts of the radical neo-conservatives in power couldn’t possibly have created a more propitious time for the revival of liberal individualism in America.

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A new wave of dissidents in the east can turn back Europe’s populist tide

Natalie Nougayrède in The Guardian:

Europe’s outlook can appear bleak these days: the Brexit downward spiral continues, both Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel are weakened, and Italy’s far-right-dominated, not-so-funny commedia dell’arte only seems to be getting worse. But turn your gaze a bit further east, and there is good news to be found. In central Europe, grassroots democratic movements seem to be gaining ground. In some ways they are much more valiant and persistent than those found in western European countries. They could reshape the EU in ways few people care to anticipate.

I’ve just travelled to Slovakia, where I saw thousands demonstrate on Bratislava’s central square against corruption and for a “decent” country. Crowds stood in the cold listening to an array of activists, mostly students and artists, making the case for people power against the graft and cynicism of those who govern. The Slovak protests are organised every Friday evening not far from an improvised memorial, made of pictures, flowers and candles, honouring Ján Kuciak, a 27-year-old investigative reporter who was brutally murdered in February alongside his fiancee. Things haven’t been the same since that double murder, with an outpouring of anger and larger street demonstrations than those of the 1989 revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia.

Each country has its own story, of course, but events in Slovakia are part of a wider trend across the region: a new generation of central Europeans are mobilising to salvage democratic values they feel are under threat.

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thank you joan: thoughts on women’s hardness

Emma Christie in 3:am Magazine:

I think much of my body awareness, in addition to my literary awareness, comes from Joan Didion. In Play It As It Lays, her 1970 novel (less popular than Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but still beloved), bodies are unpredictable geodes. Protagonist Maria’s (Mar-eye-ah’s) insides are vibrant with colour and edges and productive capability, but also completely invisible. She mines for menstruation in there, hoping she isn’t pregnant, which of course she is. A doctor ‘scrapes’ her zygote (a geological-seeming name in itself) out in an abortion scene that is refreshingly without either cynicism or romanticised maternal strickenness. But it doesn’t particularly matter (at least superficially) what goes on in there, in the novel’s bright and weird physical and psychological interiors. Didion is more interested in the woman’s outside, and what it can control. Maria has dreams that a “shadowy Syndicate” occupy her home in an illicit disposal operation. The grey flesh of victims clogs sinks, and water in drains begins to rise. So, certainly, a fear of the watery interior banishes Maria from her home into a tiny apartment, and structures several chapters of the novel. But my impression is that, despite being a clear-eyed writer of insides (especially those of women like herself) and a notable mid-century explorer of what Maggie Nelson has called “a situation of meat”, the disturbing softness and fallibility of the body and of consciousness, Didion is more interested in the hard geological outside, and whether it is hard, and how hard it is. What is women’s hardness? In the end, Maria—whose character is a variation on and also a criticism of the ‘madwoman in the attic’ trope—smokes half a joint, accrues a new psychosis or fixation, and moves back into that fleshy house with a life of its own, braving the interior.

What is that other thing that makes a geode interesting? Mostly, the contrast of the inside with its uninspiring, potato-like exterior. In this way, Didion is interested in Maria’s “insanity”, but again I have the impression that the relationship between stable exterior and unstable interior life is what interests her most: the watery swishing and scary unpredictability of Maria’s thoughts exists in tension with her presentation, her image, her interaction, her appearance, her milieu, her visible body perhaps most importantly.

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The Gatekeepers: On the burden of the black public intellectual

Mychal Denzel Smith in Harper’s:

Toward the end of the Obama presidency, the work of James Baldwin began to enjoy a renaissance that was both much overdue and comfortless. Baldwin stands as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, and any celebration of his work is more than welcome. But it was less a reveling than a panic. The eight years of the first black president were giving way to some of the most blatant and vitriolic displays of racism in decades, while the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others too numerous to list sparked a movement in defense of black lives. In Baldwin, people found a voice from the past so relevant that he seemed prophetic.

More than any other writer, Baldwin has become the model for black public-intellectual work. The role of the public intellectual is to proffer new ideas, encourage deep thinking, challenge norms, and model forms of debate that enrich our discourse. For black intellectuals, that work has revolved around the persistence of white supremacy. Black abolitionists, ministers, and poets theorized freedom and exposed the hypocrisy of American democracy throughout the period of slavery. After emancipation, black colleges began training generations of scholars, writers, and artists who broadened black intellectual life. They helped build movements toward racial justice during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether through pathbreaking journalism, research, or activism. At a time of national upheaval, Baldwin adroitly described the rot of white supremacy eating away at the possibility of American democracy. But his most famous book, The Fire Next Time, is emblematic of the dilemma that has always faced the black public intellectual, which Adolph Reed described memorably in the pages of the Village Voice. “Black intellectuals,” Reed wrote, “need to address both black and white audiences, and those different acts of communication proceed from objectives that are distinct and often incompatible.” Being a black public intellectual has always meant serving two masters, and one of those masters is so needy that the other is hardly tended to.

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Sure, telling dinner guests what you’re thankful for can feel contrived, but do it anyway

A. J. Jacobs in the New York Times:

In our house, it has always been the most dreaded part of Thanksgiving. More painful than hand-scrubbing the casserole pan. More excruciating than listening to our libertarian cousin. I speak of the custom of forced gratitude — of going around the table and telling everyone what we’re thankful for.

For years, the Jacobs family responses, mine included, were almost always disappointingly bland (“I’m thankful for my family”) or relentlessly inane (“I’m thankful for my Nintendo Switch.”)

Still, I believed it was a ritual worth saving. Not because I am particularly sentimental. But because there are so few moments in life when we battle our brain’s built-in negativity bias.

There are scientific and health benefits to gratitude, too. I’ve discovered those in the past couple of years, as I’ve been working on a book about gratitude. So I’ve been on a campaign to update the gratitude ritual, to rescue it.

More here.