Discovering Robert Frost

by Joshua Wilbur 

In college, I took a course on American poetry, but I missed the class on Robert Frost. To be honest, I slept straight through it. That particular winter was brutally cold. I lived in a worn-out house some fifteen minutes from campus, and the water heater in the basement was broken. So I skipped the ice-cold shower at 8AM, the wet walk through a foot of snow, and the monotone reading of a few representative poems by a long-tenured professor. I stayed in my warm bed, wrapped up in the comforter.

From that morning until only a few weeks ago, my mental image of Robert Frost was that of a grey-haired, folksy New Englander who wrote modest poems about country life. I knew “The Road Not Taken,” though I didn’t understand it.  I was familiar with a handful of other titles— “Fire and Ice,” “Mending Wall,” “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”— but I can’t say if I had ever really read these poems. If so, they hardly made an impression on me. In short, I had Frost figured as a quaint poet of nature, a leftover from 19th Century America.

I now realize that I was wonderfully mistaken, that Robert Frost isn’t what he seems, and that the fundamental experience of reading Frost is discovering that the poems aren’t what they seem. Harold Bloom has called Frost a “trickster and a mischief maker.” In The New Yorker,  Joshua Rothman describes Frost’s “poetic sleight of hand,” his characteristic tendency for deception. In his own words, Frost considered poetry “the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.” For nearly fifty years, the poet hid ulterior meanings behind plain language. Read more »

n + 1 Types: Atheism and Historical Awareness

by Jeroen Bouterse

It is simultaneously awkward and exciting to read about your own consciously and responsibly adopted beliefs as something to be anatomized. It is also something atheists are not always much disposed to. On the contrary, perhaps: many forms of atheism present themselves as a consequence of free thought, of emancipation from tradition. The internal logic of their arguments prescribes that while religious beliefs, being non-rational, are in need of cultural or psychological explanation, atheism is really just what you will gravitate towards once you finally start thinking. One question here will be whether this is necessarily the case.

Most Atheists Just Don’t Get It

To the extent that what I just said is a recognizable self-description, we deserve the injustice that John Gray does to us in his Seven Types of Atheism (2018). Of the seven types Gray distinguishes, only two – its more withdrawn, Epicurean or mystical manifestations – get a positive review. One other version (‘God-haters’) is interesting but also confused, hardly atheistic, and of course evil. The remaining four types are primarily variations upon the theme of the naive progressivist: people who think they have left behind monotheistic religion, but who have in fact replaced it with a new God: humanity, or some proxy to humanity – science, or progress, or Enlightenment, or secular political utopia.

Idolizing or deifying something while claiming to be an atheist requires some self-delusion, according to Gray, and he readily psychologizes this phenomenon. Atheists’ understanding of religion has been “unthinkingly” inherited from monotheism (5); new atheists are “unwitting disciplines” of Comte’s positivism (11); twenty-first-century atheists are “unthinking liberals” (20); secular thinkers have continued to try to harmonize Jewish and Greek views of the world “without knowing what they are doing” (29).

A charitable reading of this is that Gray is not pointing out lack of cognitive capacity, but lack of historical awareness. Read more »


Merry Christmas, America

When you’re not with the love of your life in America
Love the woman who once was your wife in America

Then America was a terror for tyrants and a triumph for liberty
Now babies are caged in Texas by President forty-five of Amerika

He’s undignified, is unqualified, talks nonsense, zealous
Gunrunners pray his taste for porn will revive America

All lives matter, invisible ones as well: Take a knee.
Let a fist bloom. Souls of black folk will survive America

Machiavelli said Rome’s universal imperialism led to universal
Weakness. Jesus filled the vacuum with universal love, America

Had the yearning for love not ruined Rafiq
He too could have been a poet to terrorize America

By Rafiq Kathwari / @brownpundit

Trademarks and Language

by Gabrielle C. Durham

Certain phrases choke us with their ubiquity at some point:

  • “Just do it.” (Nike)
  • “Let’s get ready to rumble!” (Sports announcer Michael Buffer)
  • “That’s hot.” (Paris Hilton)
  • “Hasta la vista, baby.” (“Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” as delivered by Arnold Schwarzenegger)

Did you know these have all been trademarked? This means that you are supposed to have the owner’s permission to use any one of these phrases. These sentences were so popular at some time in history that their crafters applied to trademark and thereby protect the specific saying.

A trademark is any name, symbol, figure, letter, word, mark (such as the Nike Swoosh), or other device that is used by a manufacturer or a merchant to identify and promote a specific good or service and differentiate it from other similar goods or services from a competing manufacturer or dealer. Once you register a trademark, it is yours. You own it. In the United States, it is registered with the Patent and Trademark Office and only you can enjoy the exclusive use of your trademark. The word “trademark” was first recorded in the mid-16th century. (Property rights go way back in law; you could make the argument that they are the reason that laws arose.) Read more »

Well, Hello, Dolly

by Thomas O’Dwyer

A doll
An Irish doll: ‘You’re lookin’ swell, Dolly’.

A pretty doll in a box at the foot of the bed – what could make a better Christmas morning for a little girl?

“Aaw, she’s so pretty.” The doll promised happy days to come – hair to brush and style, outfits to make and match, private chats to be had. Good chats, with someone who only listened, never talked. A doll was the essence of childhood for millions of young girls over centuries, even millennia. A toy became a baby, a little sister or even a “little me”. The doll was a simple thing until the middle of the last century but alas, it is no longer, like childhood itself.

“You can’t find toys like that anymore,” say the oldsters about their memories of playthings. In reality, grumbling adults are indifferent to such things, unless they are collectors. To children, toys and dolls are as new and exciting as they have ever been. We may think modern dolls have morphed into figures of complexity, controversy and even creepiness. They have become trend setters, celebrities and psychotic misfits – analysed, criticised, rarely praised. Are dolls still loved? Are they innocent companions – or sexist props, propagandists for adulthood, training aids for womanhood?

It is narcissistic, this human urge to fashion models of ourselves, and it’s quite ancient. In prehistory, dolls represented some aspect of religion. Gods themselves are invisible dolls, fashioned in the human image and likeness. Early dolls were fetishes. The origin of this word was in sorcery, charms and spells, exposing the purpose of dolls. The fetish differs from an idol in that it is worshipped for itself, not as a representative of an invisible spirit. Read more »

An Ode To Joy

by Max Sirak

As we approach the end of the year, it’s that time again. Not to flip the page to the next month, but to buy a new calendar. (Who am I kidding? It’s probably only me and your grandmother who still uses paper wall calendars…) And also to reflect. 

I learned a lot in 2018. I learned about how the genealogy of Batman can be traced to Alexander Dumas. I learned about the importance of taking ownership of our emotional reactions. But, by far, the most important thing I learned was the importance of not growing up.

Say What?

It’s not that I have anything against being an adult. Working, making money, buying stuff, and maybe owning the place you live are all fine and good, I guess. But after doing these things for a while, I realized I was feeling pretty empty inside.

These things, which mean so much to so many and most seem to organize their lives around, didn’t do it for me. They didn’t satisfy me. And the more I tried to fake it, the more I tried to buy in and force myself to care about these things that practically everyone else seemed to be completely absorbed in – the worse I felt.

Until one night, toward the beginning of September, when I stumbled back into joy. Read more »

Callous Doughboy’s Band: Part 2

by Christopher Bacas

Guinea and Redhead were part of a large food chain. Beyond campus’ freshly-baked sidewalks, a Cowboy Mafia ferried contraband from the south. They landed small prop planes on ranch land outside of town, cut powder with dental anesthetics and broke up the bales. Their wares clumped on our cafeteria trays and glinted in tiny screw-top bottles. The capo, a local big-hat business man,who ran a palatial kicker-dance hall and owned the ranch. That legit business and his crew’s discipline kept them out of jail. Maybe a hat full of cash in the bargain.

My Trumpet buddy shared an apartment in a low-rise student complex. Trumpet’s Roomie was in with the Cowboys. I found out when I made a visit. From outside, the shitty drywall construction leaked sound and odors like a window screen. Inside, eucalyptus gas wrapped around my head. I knew Roomie a little. He didn’t seem to remember. Wide-eyed, fidgeting, he appraised me.

“You cool?”

I reckoned I was. In his bedroom, he kicked aside some laundry and slid open a door. On the floor, a bulging black Hefty bag yawned. Inside, Tolkein magic: lichen grown thigh-deep, whispering in shadow. Despite mind-expanding potential, there was no joy in babysitting a large ingot of fools’ gold. Read more »

How to brain hack your New Year’s resolution for success

Kevin Dickinson in Big Think:

The new year approaches and with it comes our annual habit of self-promises in the form of New Year’s resolutions. Statistically speaking, though, 2019 won’t be your year. While many of us start strong, we tend to flounder come February, and studies cite the failure rate to be anywhere from 80 to 90 percent.

In the face of those odds, many have grown despondent at the idea that a New Year’s resolution can make a difference and choose not to make one. But that doesn’t help much either. A notable study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, published in 2002, found that New Year’s resolvers — people who actually tried to fix things — reported a higher rate of success in changing a life problem, than “nonresolvers.” Only 4 percent of the latter group managed that feat.

The study noted that the “successful resolvers employed more cognitive-behavioral processes” than the nonresolvers or, as they are more commonly known, “brain hacks.”

More here.

The Miseducation of Sheryl Sandberg

Duff McDonald in Vanity Fair:

The ongoing three-way public-relations car wreck involving Washington, Facebook, and Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s powerful C.O.O., begs a question of America’s esteemed managerial class. How has someone with such sterling Establishment credentials—Harvard University, Harvard Business School, the Clinton administration—managed to find herself in such a pickle?

The answer won’t be found in the minutes of Facebook board meetings or in Sandberg’s best-selling books, Lean In and Option B, which cemented her position in the corporate firmament as a feminist heroine. Rather, it starts all the way back in 1977, when Sandberg was just eight years old and the U.S. economy was still recovering from the longest and deepest recession since the end of World War II. That’s the year that Harvard Business School professor Abraham Zaleznik wrote an article entitled, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” in America’s most influential business journal, Harvard Business Review. For years, Zaleznik argued, the country had been over-managed and under-led. The article helped spawn the annual multi-billion-dollar exercise in nonsense known as the Leadership Industry, with Harvard as ground zero. The article gave Harvard Business School a new raison d’être in light of the fact that the product it had been selling for decades—managers—was suddenly no longer in vogue. Henceforth, it would be molding leaders.

More here.

Barack Obama Goes All In Politically to Fight Gerrymandering

Edward-Isaac Dovere in The Atlantic:

Barack Obama has sometimes struggled to find his political footing since leaving office, even though he’s more popular and more in demand by Democrats than at any point since 2008. He’d been challenged by a very deliberate decision he’d made to steer clear of direct confrontation with Donald Trump for a year and a half, aware that a fight is always exactly what Trump is looking for. Why help him turn out the Republican base?

Behind the scenes, Obama had been much more active and forceful, meeting with top Democrats and mentoring up-and-coming Democrats, including most of the expected 2020 presidential candidates. Then, in September, he unleashed an intense argument against Trump and carried that forward with considerable effect through the midterms, which produced a blue wave that devastated Republicans nationally and locally. But since then, he’s been eager to move past the Trump dynamic again and address bigger, less personal politics.

The answer he’s found to accomplish this: redistricting reform.

More here.

The Nobel Prize for Climate Catastrophe

Jason Hickel in Foreign Policy:

Many people were thrilled when they heard that the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics this year went to William Nordhaus of Yale University, a man known for his work on climate change. Finally, the economics profession is giving climate the attention it deserves, just as the world is waking up to the severity of our ecological emergency. Media outlets have taken this positive narrative and run with it.

But while Nordhaus may be revered among economists, climate scientists and ecologists have a very different opinion of his legacy. In fact, many believe that the failure of the world’s governments to pursue aggressive climate action over the past few decades is in large part due to arguments that Nordhaus has advanced.

It’s a blazing controversy that hinges on the single most consequential issue in climate economics: the question of growth. The stakes couldn’t be higher. After all, this isn’t just a matter of abstract academic debate; the future of human civilization hangs in the balance.

More here.

The Escape Artist: The death and life of Stefan Zweig

Leo Carey in The New Yorker:

On February 22, 1942, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig and his second wife went to the bedroom of a rented house in Petrópolis, Brazil. They lay down—she in a kimono, he in a shirt and tie—after taking an enormous dose of barbiturates. When news of their suicides broke, it was reported as a matter of worldwide significance. The New York Times carried the news on its front page, alongside reports of the rout of Japanese forces in Bali and of a broadcast address by President Roosevelt. An editorial the next day, titled “One of the Dispossessed,” saw in Zweig’s final act “the problems of the exile for conscience sake.” Zweig, a Jew, had left Austria in 1934, living in England and New York before the final move to Brazil, and his work had been banned and vilified across the German-speaking world. In his suicide note, he spoke of “my own language having disappeared from me and my spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself.” He concluded, “I salute all my friends! May it be granted them yet to see the dawn after the long night! I, all too impatient, go on before.”

Zweig’s death arguably marked the high point of his literary standing: to most English-speaking readers, he is now little more than a name. Yet, for a time, in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, he was the most translated writer in Europe. Along with the fiction and the biographies on which his reputation chiefly rests, he produced a seemingly effortless stream of plays, translations, poems, travelogues, and essays—on subjects ranging from manuscripts to Moscow theatre. An energetic literary spokesman and pen member, he lectured, in several languages, around the world. He also championed many other writers, helping them financially and with glowing appraisals of their work.

Beside contemporaries like Thomas Mann and Joseph Roth, Zweig can seem like an also-ran; he left no single, defining masterwork. But, in the past few years, it’s become possible to appreciate anew the variety and ambition of his writing. New York Review Books and Pushkin Press have reissued most of Zweig’s important fiction, often in fine new translations by Anthea Bell, and a number of his biographical studies. They have also published translations—the first ever—of an abandoned novel, “The Post-Office Girl,” and of a long-lost novella, “Journey into the Past.”

More here. (Note: From August 2012 issue. Recommend his gorgeous book, Beware of Pity)

Against moral sainthood

Daniel Callcut in Aeon:

I am glad,’ wrote the acclaimed American philosopher Susan Wolf, ‘that neither I nor those about whom I care most’ are ‘moral saints’. This declaration is one of the opening remarks of a landmark essay in which Wolf imagines what it would be like to be morally perfect. If you engage with Wolf’s thought experiment, and the conclusions she draws from it, then you will find that it offers liberation from the trap of moral perfection. Wolf’s essay ‘Moral Saints’ (1982) imagines two different models of the moral saint, which she labels the Loving Saint and the Rational Saint. The Loving Saint, as described by Wolf, does whatever is morally best in a joyful spirit: such a life is not fun-free, but it is unerringly and unwaveringly focused on morality. We are to think of the Loving Saint as the kind of person who cheerfully sells all of her or his possessions in order to donate the proceeds to famine relief. The Rational Saint is equally devoted to moral causes, but is motivated not by a constantly loving spirit, rather by a sense of duty.

The Loving Saint might be more fun to be around than the Rational Saint, or more maddening, depending on your own personal temperament. Would the constant happiness of the Loving Saint make being with her easier, or would it drive you around the bend? There is an instruction associated with Buddhism – in fact, coined by the American scholar Joseph Campbell – that asks you to ‘participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world’, and the Loving Saint does this to the maximum: but perhaps you would find such joy sustained in the face of the world’s worst horrors inane or inappropriate. On the other hand, the Rational Saint, with his relentless commitment to duty, might be very grating company, too.

Both types of moral saint are likely to present difficulties if you are not a saint yourself.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Impossible Friendships 

For example, with someone who no longer is,
who exists only in yellowed letters.
Or long walks beside a stream,
whose depths hold hidden
porcelain cups—and the talks about philosophy
with a timid student or the postman.
A passerby with proud eyes
whom you’ll never know.
Friendship with this world, ever more perfect
(if not for the salty smell of blood).
The old man sipping coffee
in St.-Lazare, who reminds you of someone.
Faces flashing by
in local trains—
the happy faces of travelers headed perhaps
for a splendid ball, or a beheading.
And friendship with yourself
—since after all you don’t know who you are.

by Adam Zagajewski
from Eternal Enemies
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC
ranslated by Clare Cavanagh

The New York Times Just Published an Unqualified Recommendation for an Insanely Anti-Semitic Book

Yair Rosenberg in Tablet:

Over the weekend, the New York Times Book Review published a full-length interview with Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple. The very first question: “What books are on your nightstand?” Walker replied with four, the second of which was:

“And the Truth Shall Set You Free,” by David Icke. In Icke’s books there is the whole of existence, on this planet and several others, to think about. A curious person’s dream come true.

This passed without comment from the New York Times interviewer, and the publication passed it on to readers without qualification. This is rather remarkable because the book is an unhinged anti-Semitic conspiracy tract written by one of Britain’s most notorious anti-Semites.

A former soccer player turned professional hate peddler, Icke is one of the most influential conspiracy theorists in Europe, and certainly in Britain. Today, he has over 777,000 followers on Facebook, and speaks to audiences around the world. Like many conspiracy theorists, Icke claims that a secret conspiracy controls the world. And like many conspiracy theorists, Icke claims that this secret conspiracy happens to be Jewish. In And the Truth Shall Set You Free, the word “Jewish” appears 241 times, and the name “Rothschild” is mentioned 374 times. These references are not compliments. Indeed, the book was so obviously anti-Semitic that Icke’s publisher refused to publish it, and he had to print it himself.

More here.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Mathias Risse talks about where human rights came from, where they are today, and how far they still have to go

From the website of the Harvard Kennedy School:

Q: In simple terms, what defines a human right?

A human right is a right that every human being has, regardless of the cultural and political context they belong to and regardless of the state where they live. It’s a right that they have independently of any such context.

Q: Where did the notion of universal human rights come from?

It goes back really thousands of years. Basically, once you have cultures where people are thinking about morality, you have people thinking about how to treat each other. Then at some point they come to the realization that the people who live on the other side of the river, or on the other side of the mountain, are really not that different from themselves. Their thinking then moves towards articulating some standards of universal morality.

The idea of universal rights is a more recent story and has a more specifically Western trajectory. There are corresponding versions in other cultures too, but the idea that individuals were protected in certain ways was a very strong cultural feature of Christian thinking in the Middle Ages. That way of thinking continued to evolve during the Enlightenment and found expression, for example, in the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. In the 1930s and the 1940s there was basically a merging of this ancient talk about universal morality with this more recent talk about individual rights and it culminated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

More here.

Winter Solstice

Sabine Hossenfelder in Back Reaction:

The clock says 3:30 am. Is that early or late? Wrapped in a blanket I go into the living room. I open the door and step onto the patio. It’s too warm for December. An almost full moon blurs into the clouds. In the distance, the highway hums.

Somewhere, someone dies.

For everyone who dies, two people are born. 7.5 billion and counting.

We came to dominate planet Earth because, compared to other animals, we learned fast and collaborated well. We used resources efficiently. We developed tools to use more resources, and then employed those tools to use even more resources. But no longer. It’s 2018, and we are failing.

That’s what I think every day when I read the news. We are failing.

Throughout history, humans improved how to exchange and act on information held by only a few. Speech, writing, politics, economics, social and cultural norms, TV, telephones, the internet. These are all methods of communication. It’s what enabled us to collectively learn and make continuous progress. But now that we have networks connecting billions of people, we have reached our limits.

Fake news, Russian trolls, shame storms. Some dude’s dick in the wrong place. That’s what we talk about.

More here.