The Old Devil: A life of Kingsley Amis

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

AmisEvery country’s difficult literary guys are different, and you know from experience how to handle the kind you’ve grown up with. Reading Geoffrey Wolff’s excellent biography of the truly ornery American writer John O’Hara, you sense that you could have managed him, for one night, with a mixture of office-adultery gossip and writerly mumblings about advances and sales. But when you come to the super-ornery English novelist Kingsley Amis you realize that you have no idea what you could possibly have said to get through an evening. Office gossip would be bound to hit a clunker, publishing talk would seem vulgar: this is a writer who devotes an entire chapter of his memoirs to the minor American Jewish humorist Leo Rosten in order to tear him apart, because, on the one evening Amis spent with him, Rosten (a) didn’t give him enough to drink and (b) misused the English expression “local” to mean a nearby restaurant instead of a neighborhood pub. With someone like that, you just hide under the sofa, or hope you never run into him at all.

The bewildering thing is that, after having seen all his cussedness catalogued and inventoried—friends insulted, children ignored, wives betrayed, with maximum pain inflicted whenever possible—everyone on his side of the pond still regards him with backhanded affection: wonderfully wicked, magnificently rude, hilariously horrible, and so on.

More here.

A climate model suggests that chopping down the Earth’s trees would help fight global warming

From The Economist:

1507st1Trees are good. Good enough to hug. Trees have a nifty biochemical strategy called photosynthesis that enables them to take carbon dioxide in through their leaves, and swap that nasty gas for oxygen, a nice one. They use the carbon thus sequestered to make molecules like cellulose, and thus more tree.

That is why some rich people who love to burn things containing carbon, such as petrol and aircraft fuel, have recently started paying others to plant trees on their behalf. Burning adds oxygen to carbon, making carbon dioxide. And carbon dioxide makes the world warmer. A warmer world will mean higher sea levels. So if people burn things without offsetting the carbon dioxide thus produced, their holidays in the Maldive islands will disappear, along with the islands themselves.

This chattering-class environmental picture is not necessarily wrong, but it does include many assumptions. One of them, that planting trees will make the world cooler than it would otherwise be, is the subject of a newly published study by Govindasamy Bala, of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in California, and his colleagues. Dr Bala has found, rather counter-intuitively, that removing all of the world’s trees might actually cool the planet down. Conversely, adding trees everywhere might warm it up.

More here.

“Politicizing” and “exploiting” the tragic Va-Tech massacre

Lindsay Beyerstein at Majikthise:

Screenhunter_12_apr_18_1501I’m so sick of the charges and counter-charges of “exploitation” of the Va-Tech massacre for political purposes.

If people of good will think that they have an apt political point to make, let them make it without assailing them for somehow taking advantage of the tragedy. That goes for both the gun control and the anti-gun control camps.

Current events should shape policy discussions.

It’s not a question of exploitation. It’s a matter of proffering solutions and offering critiques while our increasingly fragmented national attention is focused on an issue.

If Instapundit thinks that the concealed carry ban caused the tragedy, let him say so. I think it’s a dumb argument, but I don’t see why there should be any kind of inverse statute of limitations for offering it. Yesterday I made fun of some wingnuts for rifling through their personal anxiety closets in public, trying to come to terms with the killings–but I was mocking them for saying stupid and venal things, not for “exploiting” anyone’s death.

Trying to enforce an arbitrary line between “human” and “political” responses to tragedies is a political strategy in its own right.

More here.

Grey power: Battle of the brains

From BBC News:Brain

The problem with intelligence has been to find ways of fairly assessing both types – and many others. Try these two questions:

    • How do you define “fallacy”?
    • If I say to you a random series of 9 numbers, for example: 7, 4, 8, 7, 3, 6, 6, 2, 5, can you repeat them back to me in reverse order?

Can intelligence really be measured by tests like these? The Horizon programme took seven people who are all experts in their own field and put them through a range of “intelligence” tests. We had Quantum physicist Seth Lloyd; ex-Wall Street Trader Nathan Haselbauer, who runs the International High IQ society; musical prodigy Alex Prior; artist Stella Vine; RAF fighter pilot Garry Stratford; international chess grandmaster Susan Polgar and dramatist/critic Bonnie Greer.

The IQ-type tests produced predictable results. The IQ expert and Quantum physicist came out on top. But what about “creativity”? It is not really tested by an IQ test. We assessed creativity by using a test developed in the 60s: “Name as many uses as you can for a sock in 10 minutes.” The intriguing thing about this “alternative uses” test is that it is not just the number of alternative uses that count, it is the originality of them and the extravagance of the description that also count. So a sock that could be used as a “bikini bottom, tied on with string – provided you were waxed – and that you were daring”, suggested by Bonnie Greer, gets a good score.

More here.

Frog, Lizard Extinctions Caused by Climate, Not Fungus

From The National Geographic:

Frog A changing climate may be responsible for the sharp drop in more than a dozen species of lizards and frogs in Central America, according to a new long-term study. The research adds another challenge to understanding the rapid extinctions observed in Central and South America, where more than a hundred amphibian species have disappeared since 1980. The massive decline of frog populations in particular has been widely linked to a fungus known as BD, which can wipe out a species in months. But the new study found slow, steady declines of both lizards and frogs in pristine, protected rain forests that are free of the BD fungus, researchers say.

The new study, published in the current issue of the Proceeedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reviewed data collected over 35 years at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica. The scientists found a 75 percent drop in local amphibian and reptile numbers during that period. Not only is BD fungus absent at La Selva, but BD is also not known to affect reptiles at all, Whitfield explained, so another factor must be to blame for the drop in numbers. His team’s findings suggest that increased rain and higher temperatures observed over the same 35-year period may be responsible. Hotter, wetter conditions speed decomposition of the fallen leaves that the animals depend on for their habitat, Whitfield said.

More here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Sinclair Lewis: An American Oracle

Ruchira Paul at (the new and improved!) Accidental Blogger:

Screenhunter_11_apr_17_2022So what is it about [It Can’t Happen Here]’s message that makes it chillingly prescient and as fresh as our currrent headlines? Consider, compare and contrast the following scenarios in the fictional reign of Berzelius (Buzz) Windrip (1934 – 1938) and that of the real George W. (Dubya) Bush (2000 to present). (Buzz was shadowed by a Rovian figure who groomed him for years to one day launch him on the national / international stage!)

  • A populist leader (a Democrat in the book) is elected on a simplistic platform of petty nationalism, military jingoism, wearing religiosity on one’s sleeve and not so veiled anti-intellectualism. ( Buzz (like Bush) even pronounced the United States of America as the U-nited States of America! )
  • Government was not to function just as an institution of public service but an efficient corporation as well. Buzz’s administration was proudly named the “Corporate- Government” or “Corpo” for short.  Its most trusted ally and beneficiary was big business, not the common man who brought it to power.
  • The freedom of the judiciary was severely curtailed in order to strengthen presidential powers. Suspension of the habeas corpus, use of secret military tribunals, arrests on suspicion alone (while going from home to the hardware store) and concentration camps were the order of the day.  It was all made possible by invoking threats to national security.
  • Dangers to peace, prosperity and national security were blamed on certain groups of “un-American” people who could be then be persecuted and their loyalties questioned. In Buzz’s case, they were communists, Jews, Negroes and atheists. The logic was that as long people can look down upon someone else, they feel good about themselves, no matter how miserable they actually are.
  • Citizens and public officials  were encouraged to spy and tattle on their friends, neighbors and employees. (See Joe’s post on Michelle Malkin)
  • Big city clergy of affluent churches enthusiastically supported the government’s efforts at curtailing freedoms and promoting war efforts when promised a bigger role for religion (Christianity) in public affairs.
  • Drumming up public support for the invasion and occupation of other nations who didn’t play by our democratic rules and Christian values – all for the good of their savage souls.
  • An actual pre-emptive invasion of Mexico on the flimsy and concocted grounds that Mexico was planning an attack on El Paso, San Antonio, Laredo and other US border towns.
  • Newspapers and radio were mostly cowed down into compliance or enthusiastically on board with the government’s vision of America and the world. Public protest to the “Corpo” appeared in the form of anonymous underground pamphleteering. (Blogs?)

And there is more.  ICHH is often compared to George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. But there is a crucial difference between it and its British counterparts. Orwell and Huxley described totalitarian regimes already in place where the subjects see the light from within an oppressive system.  Lewis warns about the danger of an open society sliding into a fascist mode using the very processes of democracy which we take for granted as “abuse proof.”

More here.

Surprise—men do just as much work as women do

Joel Waldfogel in Slate:

070416_ds_illotnEveryone from economists and sociologists to Oprah knows that women work more than men. Their longer combined hours, at the home and at the office, stop men from taking afternoon naps on the couch and cause fights that end with men spending nights on the couch. And yet according to new study, those longer hours are a myth, because it’s just not true that women carry a heavier load.

Three economists, Michael Burda of Humboldt University in Berlin, Daniel Hamermesh of the University of Texas, and Philippe Weil of the Free University of Brussels have analyzed data from surveys in 25 countries that ask people how they spend their time. Some of the countries are rich, like the United States and Germany, some are poor, like Benin and Madagascar, and some are in the middle, like Hungary, Mexico, and Slovenia. The people surveyed were asked to fill in diaries indicating how they spend each segment of their day.

More here.

Fat Tails: Sometimes the average is anything but average

Brian Hayes in American Scientist:

Screenhunter_10_apr_17_1819You’ve probably heard of Lake Wobegon, the little town in Minnesota where all the children are above average. There’s been much head-scratching about this statistical miracle. What happens to the kids who fail to surpass themselves? Are they shipped across the lake to another little town, where all the children are below average? That practice wouldn’t necessarily work to the detriment of either community. It might be like the migration from Oklahoma to California during the Dust Bowl years, which Will Rogers said raised the average intelligence of both states.

One small town that beats the law of averages is strange enough, but even more mystifying is the finding that Lake Wobegon is not unique—that in fact everyone is above average. In 1987 John J. Cannell, a West Virginia physician and activist, discovered that all 50 states report that their children do better than the national average on standardized tests. (And this was years before the No Child Left Behind Act!)

I can’t promise to resolve these paradoxes. On the contrary, I’m going to make matters worse by describing still more funny business in the world of averages. The story that follows is about a data distribution that simply has no average. Given any finite sample drawn from the distribution, you are welcome to apply the usual algorithm for the arithmetic mean—add up the values and divide by the size of the sample—but the result won’t mean much. Whatever average you calculate in this way, you can improve it just by taking a bigger sample. Perhaps this is the secret of the Lake Wobegon school board.

More here.

The End of Export-Led Democratization?

In Dissent, Daniele Archibugi, Ofra Bengio, Seyla Benhabib, Paul Berman, Mitchell Cohen, Thomas Cushman, John Lister, Shibley Telhami on what Iraq implies for the idea of “exporting” democracy. Paul Berman:

The question seems to me wrongly put in one aspect. To hurl curses and insults at the Bush administration is a worthy, right, and just thing to do; and yet there is no reason to trip all over ourselves in acknowledging that Bush and his administration did sincerely desire to achieve a democratic outcome in Iraq. For some sixty years before the Iraq War, American policy in the Middle East had nothing to do with democracy. American policy was based on a principle of malign stability, conducted in the belief that stable dictatorships would guarantee American interests.

The pursuit of malign stability governed America’s Iraq policy over the decades, and the results were unusually hideous, given that Baathism is a kind of fascism, and Baathist Iraq was an exceptionally murderous totalitarian state. The pursuit of stability led the United States to abandon the Iraqi Kurds in the mid-1970s; to support Saddam against the Iranians in the 1980s; to follow a policy of hands-off, see-no-evil serenity, even in 1988, when Saddam was once again massacring Kurds, this time at a more gigantic level than before, sometimes by means of poison gas, no less. And, in keeping with this same malign policy, the United States decided to leave Saddam in power after the 1991 war, even while applying sanctions and conducting a permanent mini-war, in order to prevent the dictatorship from starting up yet another war. The policy of malign stability grew, in short, ever more malign, until, in the years after 1991, we ourselves were inflicting damage on the Iraqi people with our sanctions. Iraqi society fell into a dreadful downward spiral, and the results were ghastly.

Rethinking Free Trade

In The Nation, William Greider looks on some revisions of thought on free-trade by mainstream economists.

Ralph Gomory, on the other hand, is a gentle-spoken technologist, trained as a mathematician and largely apolitical. He does not set out to overthrow the establishment but to correct its deeper fallacies. For many years Gomory was a senior vice president at IBM. He helped manage IBM’s expanding global presence as jobs and high-tech production were being dispersed around the world.

The experience still haunts him. He decided, in retirement, that he would dig deeper into the contradictions. Now president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, he knew something was missing in the “pure trade theory” taught by economists. If free trade is a win-win proposition, Gomory asked himself, then why did America keep losing?

The explanations he has developed sound like pure heresy to devout free traders. But oddly enough, Gomory’s analysis is a good fit with what many ordinary workers and uncredentialed critics (myself included) have been arguing for some years. An important difference is that Gomory’s critique is thoroughly grounded in the orthodox terms and logic of conventional economics. That makes it much harder to dismiss. Given his career at IBM, nobody is going to call Ralph Gomory a “protectionist.”

He did not nail his “theses” to the door of the Harvard economics department. Instead, he wrote a slender book–Global Trade and Conflicting National Interests–in collaboration with respected economist William Baumol, former president of the American Economic Association. Published seven years ago, the book languished in academic obscurity and until recently was ignored by Washington policy circles.

Human Development Foundation (HDF): 10th Anniversary

Adil Najam in All Things Pakistan:

I  believe that HDF is a vanguard example of Pakistanis in and out of Pakistan – one amongst many (e.g., DIL, Citizens Foundation, Edhi Foundation, etc.) – who have decided that it is not only that they can do something, but that they must.

On their 10th anniversary, HDF hopes to celebrate that which they have done in the last ten years but they also hope to discuss that which they and all of us can and should do in the next 10. It would be good for the ATP fraternity to also think about this question – what can we do – both here and, hoepfully, at the HDF Convention in May.

Here is a video clip of the beginning of the PBS documentary on HDF in their series called Visionaries.’ The rest of the documentary is available on YouTube.

Much more here.

The Stem Cell Controversy

Bertha Alvarez Manninen reviews The Stem Cell Controversy: Debating the Issues by Michael Ruse and Christopher A. Pynes (Editors), in Metapsychology:

StemcellrevisedNow in its second edition, The Stem Cell Controversy has been an invaluable anthology for my own personal research, and in my teaching as well. I should say, right away, that in my experience this is one of the best books available for introducing the issue to students and really discussing the scientific, ethical, and religious implications of embryonic and adult stem cell research. One of the main reasons that this book is so helpful and accessible is that it is broken down into five distinct sections that provide comprehensive overview of the different aspects of this current and divisive issue. I will mostly deal with the contents of the second edition, since this is the one currently available, but will refer back to the first edition if I believe that it was superior to the second edition in any respect.

The book begins with the full text of President George W. Bush’s August 9, 2001 speech, where he announced his decision to allow federal funding for stem cell research only on existing stem cell lines derived from embryos prior to that point in time, but that no new embryos were to be killed for the research using tax-payer dollars. I like that the students, and readers in general, are able to read exactly what Bush’s reasoning was when he made this decision, and I usually go through it carefully with them, extracting some philosophical arguments from the speech and then critically evaluating them.

More here.

BBC accused of censorship after cancelling short story broadcast

Owen Gibson in The Guardian:

Screenhunter_09_apr_17_1249The author Hanif Kureishi accused the BBC of censorship last night, after it dropped a radio broadcast of his short story describing the work of a cameraman who films the executions of western captives in Iraq.

Radio 4 cancelled a reading of Weddings and Beheadings, one of five nominations for the National Short Story prize due to be broadcast this week, after concluding the timing “would not be right” following unconfirmed reports that kidnapped BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston had been killed by a jihadist group.

Kureishi, whose work includes The Buddha of Surburbia, Intimacy and the screenplay for the film My Beautiful Launderette, said he was angry at the decision, which he described as a result of “stupid thinking” on the part of BBC executives.

More here.

Almost Human, and Sometimes Smarter

From The New York Times:Chimp_1_2

Observed in the wild and tested in captivity, chimpanzees invite comparison with humans, their close relatives. They bear a family resemblance that fascinates people, and scientists see increasing evidence of similarities in chimp behavior and skills, making some of them think on the vagaries of evolution. Chimps display a remarkable range of behavior and talent. They make and use simple tools, hunt in groups and engage in aggressive, violent acts. They are social creatures that appear to be capable of empathy, altruism, self-awareness, cooperation in problem solving and learning through example and experience. Chimps even outperform humans in some memory tasks.

Jane Goodall, a young English woman working in Africa in the 1960s, began changing perceptions. At first, experts disputed her reports of chimps’ using tools and social behavior. The experts especially objected to her references to chimp culture. Just humans, they insisted, had “culture.”

Tetsuro Matsuzawa, a Kyoto primatologist, described a young chimp watching as numbers 1 through 9 flashed on the computer screen at random positions. Then the numbers disappeared in no more than a second. White squares remained where the numbers had been. The chimp casually but swiftly pressed the squares, calling back the numbers in ascending order — 1, 2, 3, etc.

More here.

Drugs may boost your brain power

From BBC News:Pill

The Department of Health has asked the Academy of Medical Sciences to assess these so-called “cognition enhancing” drugs, some of which are already being widely used in the US. In the 1960s the self styled guru, Dr Timothy Leary, urged American youth to “tune in, turn on and drop out”. Now a new generation of so-called designer drugs are becoming available. But instead of fuelling a new drop-out culture, they are being used by people who think they will help them do better at school and work.

One of these drugs, Modafinil, was developed to treat people who involuntarily fall asleep. The drug is among a new class of cognition enhancing drugs. Professor Gary Lynch, from the University of California, Irvine, helped invent another class called Ampakines. Professor Lynch designed them specifically to increase memory and cognition. And he claims that animal experiments suggest that the drug enables the brain to rewire itself or make neural connections between different regions that normally people cannot make. This rewiring, he claims, may enable people to “build thoughts that are a little bit beyond the normal brain”.

More here.

Questions for Mohsin Hamid

Deborah Solomon in the New York Times:

306_mohsin_photo_1Q: Your new novel, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” ascended to No. 1 on the Barnes & Noble best-seller list virtually the moment it was published in this country. What do you make of that? Now perhaps I can quit my job. Three days a week, I do some consulting for a little branding firm in London.

Is it fair to describe your second novel as a Muslim’s critique of American values? That’s oversimplifying. The novel is a love song to America as much as it is a critique.

I didn’t find it so loving. It takes place on a single evening at a cafe in Lahore, as a charming, well-educated Pakistani in his 20s recounts his life story to an unnamed American stranger, who seems suspicious of him. The American is acting as if the Pakistani man is a Muslim fundamentalist because of how he looks — he has a beard.

More here.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Dispatches: Eagleton versus Dawkins

As comments continue to roll in on Abbas’s excellent “Taking Sides in the Recent Religion Debates” of last week, I thought I’d zero in on a particular conflict between two of the figures he discusses:  Richard Dawkins and Terry Eagleton.  As he noted while framing the debates over religion, there is something puzzling about the degree of subjective animosity that attended Eagleton’s excorciating review of The God Delusion.  We can add to that the fact that the review has been one of the most popular things Eagleton has written recently – it is the second thing that comes up if you Google Eagleton’s name.  Anecdotally, I can confirm this: when the review was published, several friends wrote to me approvingly about it, with the implication that finally Dawkins had gotten his comeuppance.  At the time, this confused me, as it seemed to me the two figures should be fellow travelers, or at least denizens of the same region of sympathies.  So it now seems worth unpacking their differences, as a gauge of our current intellectual atmosphere.

I should also note something at the start: I don’t intend, at all, to revisit this debate for what it all-too-often threatens to turn into: a proxy for an argument between believers and non-believers.  That particular aspect of this issue is probably its least interesting feature.  (If you must know, I am an atheist, though one who regularly speaks to people I knew who are now dead.)  My personal eccentricities aside, what is much more telling about the Eagleton-Dawkins relation is the fact that Eagleton so clearly regards much of Dawkins’ project in The God Delusion with contempt (though, to be fair, he is equally, uh, vigorous in his LRB reviews of his disciplinary colleagues Stanley Fish and Gayatri Spivak).  Eagleton’s contempt conceals another conflict which is periodically renewed in academia, that between the humanities and the sciences.   We can begin by observing that one of Dawkins’ foundational moves in his book belongs to just this conflict: he argues that the existence of God “is a scientific hypothesis about the universe, which should be analyzed as skeptically as any other.” 

This move, more than any other, licenses Dawkins’ method in the book, which is to set about debunking various claims of religion as though they were microcosmically representative of the whole: did Jesus have a human father, etc.  (Note the lack of specificity attaching to the term.)  It comes as no surprise that here Eagleton makes a stand on this issue, defending theological debates as a realm of the humanities, and not necessarily subject to the positivist scrutiny of a Dawkins.  In Eagleton’s view, Dawkins flattens or elides what is complex about religion.  This is not a new argument for Eagleton.  For instance, here he is in his 2003 book After Theory:

Much atheism today is just inverted religion.  Atheists tend to advance a version of religion which nobody in their right mind would subscribe to, and then righteously reject it.  They accept the sort of crude stereotypes of it that would no doubt horrify them in any other field.  They are rather like those for whom feminism means penis-envy, or socialism labor camps.

In this case, Eagleton was prescient: there’s no doubt that at times Dawkins  treats causation in the social world in a facile way, laying much evil and no good at religion’s doorstep.  For instance, Dawkins opens the book by expressing his satisfaction with a billboard advertising a TV show he presented, which shows a picture of the New York skyline with the World Trade Center intact and the caption: “Imagine a world without religion.”  I don’t think you need to flock with the faithful to find this sentiment a little absurd.  Imagining a world without religion is a little more difficult than that – as though the removal of this irrational abstraction, religion, would correspondingly and magically remove only massacres, honor killings, and telesales. 

Of course, on the other hand, none of Eagleton’s criticisms of Dawkins score direct hits on the central matter of disputation, except insofar as he tries to change the relevant genre of conversation from a scientific to a historico-theoretical one.  But that’s neither here nor there, and the debate between the two of them should not be construed as an argument conducted on one playing field.  Each, of course, picks the ground that is most conducive to the discipline they profess: Eagleton avoids specificity when discussing the core of monotheistic faith, preferring to reiterate his quasi-Marxist version.  In his account, Jesus and Muhammad project a God whose omnipotence is an inverted version of the powerlessness of the destitute – the Christian and Muslim God, for Eagleton, might even be said to be the emanation of the spirit of the powerless, a proto-Marxist reminder of the limits of capitalism.

For his part, Dawkins makes religion into what suits him; he avoids discussion of figures who would complicate his somewhat simplistic faith in the power of the scientific method to verify phenomenological events such as beliefs.  Bruno Latour comes to mind as someone whose version of the history of science would cause serious problems for Dawkins in his Whiggier moments.  Same with Paul Feyerabend, on the blindness of early adherence to Copernican theory.  Dawkins also ignores the entire subfield known as the rhetoric of science, and its challenges to the scientific ideals of transparency and objectivity.  Plus, Dawkins seems to reify, or make overly tangible, the concept of religion while giving the institutional nature of the apparatus short shrift.  Religion is not so easily isolated – if it were, the Islams of Akbar, Ghalib, and Qutb wouldn’t seem quite so incommensurable.  It is both social and personal, not a “natural phenomenon” in any simple way.

But my interest here is in the rift that so obviously lies between these two ostensible members of the academic left, even though each probably regards the other as a benighted secret rightist.  United in their opposition to hate-mongering, torture, poverty, and human suffering, why should they be antagonists at all?  The word “respect,” repeated several times in Eagleton’s essay, has something to tell us: the claims of each, for the primacy of empiricism and cultural theory, respectively, starkly divide them.  It offends Eagleton that complexly articulated histories of debate should be swept aside so churlishly by Dawkins.  Whose epistemology goes all the way down? 

Slavoj Zizek, responding recently to an attack by Ernesto Laclau, remarks:

“In academia, a polite way to say that we found our colleague’s intervention or talk stupid and boring is to say, “It was interesting.” So if, instead, we tell a colleague, “It was boring and stupid,” he would be fully justified to be surprised and ask, “But if you found it boring and stupid, why did you not simply say that it was interesting?” “

To answer this question with regard to the Dawkins/Eagleton conflict, I’d suggest that the rhetorical excess does not belong to the debate about God itself, but to their competing disciplines, which struggle for social capital and resources.  In perhaps their most typically contemporary shared orientation, Dawkins and Eagleton each imagines himself the victim of powerful forces.  In Dawkins’ case, the forces of ignorance and religious hucksterism suppress the put-upon atheist.  For Eagleton, those non-materialists who recognize anything other than inequity and the global world-system as the source of their troubles misrecognize reality.  Funnily, for neither does the real problem appear to be the private beliefs of individuals.  Why not, then, direct their vitriol at other targets? 

The rest of my Dispatches.

On the Large Relatively Anonymous Office

Mildly desperate, my investment in writing a loss, I decided to get a job.

I was 27. The last person I had worked for, a lawyer, was (long story, I had zero to do with the mess) under indictment. My prior work experience was patchy, cash jobs I had taken for survival or taxable ones to satisfy around six months of a fleeting interest. I had refused to commit to the cruise ship of a discernible career and found no place on the deck of the merry and like-minded who, seeing themselves in me, would give me a chance. My friends were not far along enough in their careers to help and were weary anyway of what seemed like commitment issues on my part. I had no pedigree of any kind to fall back on. My parents were recently divorced and totally broke. I was broke and exhausted from not having enough control over whether I might be broke again. I longed for a quaint steadiness, one that I perceived as being under the governorship of a large relatively anonymous office.

The advice I received from the career services of my alma mater, from my mother, from friends and others, was to take my unrelated experiences as connected by skill sets within each that pointed towards a type of office place I could make a case for having always wanted and long prepared for. I chose law.

(Inevitably, suggestions of law school followed to which I demurred. Many a decent, restless brain grew tired of being alone and set off to law school. Some found a home, others a crematorium. Understanding of the law is useful for practical, social hermeneutics, but as a science it is far broader then it is profound and I disagree with the average lawyer’s only tenet—that all narratives are arguably equal. Besides, I needed money, pronto, not loans.)

I scoured the search engines, met with recruiters and alumni, fine tuned the list of specials called a resume, repeated and repeated my personal pitches and after two months received one offer, which I took.

For $41,500 (I scoffed at the original proposition of $40K), dental and all the overtime I could get, I became a paralegal at a Midtown law firm of some 40 lawyers that specialized in litigation and real estate. I was given a desk and existence as email address and phone extension. Not much happened the first week. I even asked the guy who hired me when I was going to get some work. Shortly thereafter I was swimming in recyclables.

Because our hours were all billed to clients and because I had to keep track of all my hours, I know that out of 125 days at the law firm, 96 were spent filing, 50 were spent indexing and over 25 were spent copying, entering data or running one word searches of pdf files with tens of thousands of pages to them, with considerable overlap of tasks over the course of the day. Occasionally, I was sent out of the office to deliver documents, usually to a court (on 27th and Madison is a tiny marble and wood galleon of a courthouse, free to the public and superlative), once to a kosher steakhouse to get a signature from a couple:

    Wife, “Why’s he interrupting dinner?”
    Husband, “He has something for us to sign.”
    Wife, “Will it get me in trouble?”
    Husband, “Just sign and keep eating.”

The trips out of the office were billed by my co-workers as the major perk to my role; I would be the only one who could get away from the office; I would be the only one who would not always have to engage in dreaded work. I never bought the idea behind this supposed perk, that work inherently sucks and by extension nothing is better than to leave work. The tasks I was given sucked big time for sure, and I did not have to step far back to think of much worse jobs (most of these have to do with killing or jerking off animals, to say nothing of the expedited death that comes with much of the developed worlds forced upon endeavors. My personal soft spot for worst job has always been with the weathered model who poses provocatively with shawarma, white sauce smeared on lamb shreds with gusto, on deli posters; wherever you are, babe, I got an acre on my wide heart waiting for you.). Still, averse as I am to the environment, I have never been convinced that to be in an office was to hand over an essential part of oneself for the duration of the time one spends under florescents. Cubiclitis, in my experience, was never a degenerative disease but a cold most everyone caught.

I did not make any major friends at the law firm, but I got along well enough. Denise from accounting told me about her daquiri infused weekends. Marcus, a fellow paralegal, a neocon with a flaccid Masters in German literature, was good for political talk in a two North ends of a magnet meet kind of way. I got a workplace nickname from a lawyer who trusted my efficiency, Alexcelente.  I had my water cooler conversations, was pulled into some important projects and emailed silly forwards. My workplace enthusiasm was drenched after I followed loud laughter to a cubicle with three people around a screen watching what turned out to be cat bloopers. This, the cat bloopers, happened a number of times, with different people, at all hours, cat bloopers. I bore the machine gun fire of the cultural epitaphs, “you’re fired”, “that was easy” and quotes from Goodfellas. I was condescended to more then I care to be and regularly kept late, far far past my tolerance for my dull tasks.

The lawyers were hardworking and generally cordial, with one requisite jerk screamer who, outside of his office, was pretty contained. They were almost all men and all white except for one black lawyer who lived with his door shut and a well-aged blond who was the sole member of their booming divorce practice and always had her door open. The secretaries were almost all women and fell into two categories: young mamacita’s surrounded by pictures of their kids and faded Mediterranean beauties consoled by pictures of their grandkids. A good portion of them kept candy I lived off of on their desks and almost all of them were nice as well.

For most, the community seemed to be the major draw of the office. Where the repetition of tasks and conversations stunted me and made me anxious, most were comforted by the familiarity of their roles and the personalities around them. Even many of the cases I worked on followed formulas so pervasive—fighting over a dead relative’s house, one brother ruins a family business but keeps all the money, the building of malls—and central to human nature that it was hard to tell them apart sometimes. This community seemed a decent enough attraction for the employees. On its best days the large office was a cousin of, two or four times removed, the kind of personalized neighborhood whose looming extinction people often point to but rarely offer winning solutions for. The office had policemen and mailmen, sports leagues and boards and local representatives, drunks and idiots. The Mom n’ Pop store was the old secretary who helped with the copy machine and in passing compared the easy-to-handle-once-you-get-used-to-them pitfalls of the machine with navigating a long life. This community, complaints of Monday aside, the general longing for a vacation or just taking in how emotionally engorged people would become with a long weekend on the way, kept the majority of my co-workers contented, if not quite fully so.

I was nowhere near content and in my entire time there learned only two things, both on the same occasion, one month into the job. On that occasion I attended a commercial real estate closing for a lawyer who could not be present or did not care to be. My assignment was to deliver checks and wait until the money went through. People have told me that residential real estate closings can be exciting, touching—a young couple buying a bigger apartment or, not long ago, flipping one for the money afforded by our faded housing boom. Commercial closings are bureaucratic affairs. One waits, hands over a check and waits some more; $50 million might be exchanged, but it could just as well be $50.
So, I was sitting in this conference room, checks in hand, on the 38th floor of a Midtown office building, with a long wait on the way and everyone else jibber-jabbering on their phones about what they were doing the next hour and the hour after that and thereafter, and I was looking out at all the tall buildings around me and I realized.

I realized what architects are getting at when they design these tall buildings and how New York never ceases to provide engaging angles from which to be viewed. Any space can be observed from an infinite number of angles, but life quickly teaches us that the majority of these angles are quite similar to each other. Except in New York, where the viewing experience rarely repeats itself, is often new and generally wonderful. And, I realized that I would never make it to the surface of the sea I had willfully decided to start at the near bottom of.

Five months after my thoughts in the conference room on the 38th floor, I left the firm to incredibly little fanfare. Writing a book for a combined two hours a week while being stuck at an office wasn’t cutting it. Ten months later the novel’s far from done. I’m still broke. I squatted for some time at a girlfriend’s. That ended. I stay at my mother’s. Some days I get a bunch of writing done. Some days I get a blissful amount of writing done. Some days I wonder at the purpose of writing a stupid book and wonder at what I am trying to achieve, devoted to a wilting form. Some days I set aside an hour to masturbate, turn it into three, read through several newspapers and a handful of, ehem, good blogs, and have meandering conversations with friends, some at an office, doing quite well (what was a sea to me is for them more like one of those knotted ropes hanging from the ceiling in gym class. They are scaling the rope quickly).
Which brings me to the trouble-free point of this here break from my writing. Do not take on a job that does not challenge you, no matter what your impression is of how the world works. This applies as much to the individual plying at a desk as to the idealist spinning like Samson in his mill around an art form he or she might be better served leaving for an engaging office. And if you do pick an unchallenging affair, your reasons for doing so must be very strong. In my case they were not.