Milestones: Ratzinger and Qutb

When Cardinal Ratzinger was elevated to Pope, my standard joke to relieve the tension in liberal company involved pointing out the fact that the title of Ratzinger’s memoirs, Milestones, was exactly the same as the title of the terrorist primer of the Egyptian radical Islamist Sayyid Qutb, who Paul Berman has called “the philosopher of Al Qaeda.” I was indulging in gallows humor, of course, not because I thought that Ratzinger was planning to unleash new Crusades against the infidels, but instead because I’ve grown tired of hearing the sweeping and ignorant claims about the “sickness” or “rot” at the heart of Muslim society from pundits who seem unaware that their own fundamentalist worldview overlaps at many points with that of their declared enemies.

I’m not proposing a knee-jerk argument of “moral equivalence,” as Tariq Ali did in The Clash of Fundamentalisms, which suggests that both sides of this equation are equally pernicious. The unique aims and methods of Al Qaeda, with its emphasis on maximum civilian deaths, open season on Americans and Jews as a blanket ethnic license to kill, and willingness to pursue catastrophic terrorist attacks, tend to make any such comparison trivial. Even the likes of abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph, whose vile beliefs share an equally vicious fundamentalism and similar murderous tactics, do not, of course, represent the same scale of threat to the state as bin Laden. When Timothy McVeigh indulged himself in a death-bed turn to religion by taking the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, which involves a confession and the absolution of sins, it showed the humanity of the Catholic faith, in the person of an unidentified prison chaplain, more than anything else. Even the Branch Davidians at Waco seemed content to wait for the apocalypse rather than bringing down the government. That said, as House Democrats complained in April, internal Homeland Security Department documents indicate a mystifying lack of interest in the potential terrorist threat of right-wing hate groups, while oddly listing the Animal Liberation Front as a group that might potentially support Al Qaeda. It was these right-wing extremists, of course, in addition to some well-known Christian fundamentalists, who welcomed September 11.

If there is a real comparison to be drawn, however, it is not between Muslim and Christian terror groups, or “who to worry about more.” It’s about the nature of the ideas underlying fundamentalism, which in their radical forms are worrisome to opponents of theocracy everywhere. When it comes to ideas, the splinter in our eye is curious; the United States is prosecuting what it perceives to be an ideological war of ideas with fundamentalist Islam abroad, while the ruling party largely turns a blind eye to religious fanaticism at home. Christopher Hitchens, for example, referred to the election of 2004 as “Bush’s Secularist Triumph” in Slate, mocking the Catholic writer Garry Wills for worrying over Bush’s Armageddonism. (Wills compares Ratzinger to Ashcroft.) Hitchens stretched contrarianism to new levels by declaring that the left was “making excuses for religious fanaticism” by sympathizing with suicide bombers and Iraqi insurgents. As it happens, there remains a large legion of committed liberals who understand the necessity of fighting terrorism. They shouldn’t be intellectually bullied into ignoring the entirety of the domestic political scene, where rampant theocons are giddy with power.

When Andrew Sullivan, in a New Republic essay “Crisis of Faith,” calls America’s homegrown theocrats a “milder” form of fundamentalism, he seems to de-emphasize the fact that in the wake of the Schiavo case, prominent Republicans were making highly emotive attacks on Federal judges that seemed to question the Rule of Law or threaten to overturn it. Similarly, one of the first proclamations made by the new Pope was a threat against Catholic clergy who helped enforce Spain’s new and more liberal marriage act, which allow legal rights for homosexual couples. Here it was again: a sense that the Rule of Law was subordinate to religious dictates (a notion which, incidentally, flies in the face of Christian doctrine). Since then, the new Pope has backed down and tried to present a more inclusive face.

When I went back to the experts, I found that I was not mistaken to wonder whether radical Islam and fundamentalism Christianity shared similar worldviews. Extrapolating from the work of Karen Armstrong, in The Battle for God, and Gilles Kepel, in The Revenge of God, it’s plausible to draw connections, though not identities, between the thought of Ratzinger and Qutb. Kepel, in fact, mentions them both in his book. The reason is that both thinkers had their intellectual life-worlds formed in basic opposition to liberal, pluralist, capitalist modernity, in an era dominated by Western secular humanism and the expansion of American culture. Armstrong and Kepel agree that contemporary fundamentalism, while deploying the rhetoric of returning to a simpler past of traditional faith, in fact is modern through and through. Yes, it’s a kind of modernism that rejects and despises modernity itself, but while it cries out for humanity to turn back the clock to a time before birth control, AIDs, working women, and biological theories of homosexuality – though not, interestingly enough, a time before the discovery of germs or antibiotics – in reality its aims are modern, a highly politicized form of authoritarian control over personal morality and privacy.

A comparative investigation of Ratzinger and Qutb must focus upon their shared horror of modern life and its putative ethical decay. For Qutb this involved the “hideous schizophrenia” he saw at the core of modernity, which broke apart the sacred and secular realms of existence, disrupting a meaningful view of creation, the individual’s role in life, and his or her relationship with God. Thus Islam, which in Qutb’s native Egypt had begun rapid modernization under Nasser, must radically reject “the European mentality,” because it cannot provide salvation. Thus Islamists are encouraged to get free of freedom, at least the pernicious model of freedom offered by the tempting but vacuous illusions of consumer capitalism. Ratzinger’s views strike a similar chord. “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism,” he warned fellow cardinals before they elected him in conclave, “which does not recognize anything as certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.” In fact, either man could have written these lines. Qutb’s own remarks are: “This religion is really a universal declaration of the freedom of man from servitude to other men and from servitude to his own desires.”

The “desires” that seem to bother both thinkers the most are the most sensual and private ones. Qutb argues in Milestones that “if the relationship between man and woman is based on lust, passion and impulse, and the division of work is not based on family responsibility and natural gifts; if woman’s role is merely to be attractive, sexy and flirtatious, and if woman is freed from her basic responsibility of bringing up children…then such a civilization is ‘backward’…” Ratzinger puts the same case in another fashion. “What is the woman to do when the roles inscribed in her biology have been denied and perhaps even ridiculed?” he asks. And what if “her wonderful capacity to give love, help, solace, warmth, solidarity has been replaced by the economistic and trade union mentality of the ‘profession,’ by this typical masculine concern?” Funny that Ratzinger should mention his opposition to women working in exactly this context, because the above passage from Qutb rails against those women who take jobs as airline hostesses. St. Paul, on the other hand, asked women preachers only to cover their heads when they were at work in the faith, so that the vision of women’s roles in the faith was more progressive 2000 years ago than it is today.

A troubling picture of resemblances emerges here that cannot be easily denied. Both thinkers are authoritarian fundamentalists operating against the grain of the same modern global culture of tolerance, pluralism, and relativism. Thus their critique of our world has mutual resonance – it sounds similar, it rings a bell. At the very least this ought to give us pause. Rightwing religious pundits busy themselves with vacuous assertions about the need to uproot the inherent sickness of Muslim society – and not just the real enemy, the sinister terrorist groups who take bin Laden as their inspiration, who are a much smaller, much more dangerous demographic that needs to be separated out from even conservative Islamism.

The great difference, of course, is that Qutb’s writings form a direct incitement to violence, although not, it must be said, against innocent American civilians. ”Those who risk their lives and go out to fight,” he says, “and who are prepared to lay down their lives for the cause of God are honorable people, pure of heart and blessed of soul. But the great surprise is that those among them who are killed in the struggle must not be considered or described as dead. They continue to live, as God Himself clearly states.” Qutb’s appeal for Qaedists is based upon this conception of martyrdom. Ratzinger, on the contrary, shifted toward a more conservative outlook at the result of his opposition to militancy. As a young professor at Tubingen University during the 1960s, Ratzinger recoiled from the student protest movement that wished to politicize the Church. Persistent rumors that hostile students once grabbed a microphone away from Ratzinger have been officially denied. But Ratzinger’s distress created a lasting impression of “instrumentalization by ideologies that were tyrannical, brutal, and cruel.” If there is violence encoded in the doctrine of Ratzinger, it involves acts of omission (the cover-up of the sex abuse scandal, for example, in which he directly participated), and the propagation of measures that lead to poverty and war, such as the denial of birth control. But the views are consistent with an absolute protection of life, part of the “seamless garment” of Catholic theology which opposes war and the death penalty as well as the right to choose.

If we found that the person who mailed anthrax to the U.S. Senate was a huge fan of The Passion of the Christ and an owner of The Ratzinger Report, we might blame Mel Gibson for being a propagandist of extremist Catholicism, and revisit his father’s remarks about the holocaust, as well as Ratzinger’s stint in the Hitler Youth. But nobody would advocate the invasion of Vatican City. That would be as silly as invading Iraq to defeat bin Ladenism, or trying to make Qutb, not Atta, the mastermind of September 11. But since such silliness is happening, and since we are going through the full immersion experience in nationalistic zealotry and the degradation of foreign cultures and entire regions of the globe, it’s worth remembering the motes and the splinters in the eyes of the theocrats on both sides who want to make this a clash of civilizations.

Monday Musing: Regarding Regret

[Abbas Raza is filling in for Morgan Meis, who is indisposed.]

Recently someone asked me one of those highly meaningful questions, the answers to which, if shared, are supposed to tell both persons very important things about each other. The question was: “Is there anything you really regret in your life?” I didn’t know how to answer that. At first, I tried to take it pretty seriously and actually catalogue the things I regret, but soon realized that I wasn’t quite sure what to include. The time I hit a guy in a fit of jealousy at a party when I was an undergrad at Johns Hopkins? Should that be included? It felt kinda’ right at the time. How about the time I failed to stand up for a friend of mine in grade school when he was about to be beaten up? Definitely the time I told my mother at age twenty that I no longer needed her. Yeah, that one should surely be in the list. What does it mean to regret something? That you would go back in time and change it if you could? That’s too easy. I would go back and change so many things if that were easily possible: I would even change that time I took too sharp a left turn at the end of our street and skidded off my bike and skinned my knees and elbows. Does that mean I really regret having skinned my knees and elbows? Well, yes, of course, in some sense, but I don’t think that was the sense that my friend had in mind when asking me about what, if anything, I have regrets.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that regret is an oddly neglected emotion. There are volumes of philosophical writings on shame, for example. Anger is studied carefully and documented. Fear is feared, but also cultivated as an odd pleasure in everything from roller coasters to horror movies. Even guilt, regret’s more dangerous second cousin, is explicated, assuaged, overcome. Regret, however, remains unanalyzed. Regret is a sadder, less instructive emotion than guilt. Regret means nothing beyond itself. Regret is completely empty. But regret is real.

“What do you regret?”

As I already mentioned, in some sense you regret everything that has ever caused you pain or even discomfort. But that doesn’t answer our question. What do you really regret? I don’t know. What work is that italicized “really” really doing in that question? I really don’t know. What can we do to figure this out better?

First, let’s explore, a bit more, the idea of going back and changing things if we could. Here’s what I’m thinking (and, yes, I am actually doing the thinking as I write this): what makes the idea of going back and changing things if we could, completely trivial, is that there is no cost to us in doing it, so we are tempted to change even the smallest things that went wrong. So what if we put a price on these time travels? How about if you had to lose a digit each time you went back to change something? That’s silly. We have a better way of valuing things. It’s called money. So, what if it costs $10,000 to go back and change any single hour of your past life? This would surely make one narrow down the things that one wants to change. (Okay, yes, $10,000 may still allow Bill Gates to go back and change even the smallest things he ever has even a slightly negative recollection of, but let’s fix that by assuming that $10,000 means the same to all of us. You can do this by, say, giving all of us the same imaginary income of $100,000 per year, or you can adjust the amount itself to be 10% of the person’s annual income, whatever it may be.) Just stick with me, will you? The important thing is that all of a sudden I am not so interested in spending 10,000 dollars that I have in 2005 to change a skinned knee that I had when I was a child. How about being able to take back what I said to my mom when I was twenty? I’d have to think about it. Because I have responsibilities to my wife now. Okay, this is better. It puts an actual price on regret, quantifies it, makes it understandable in modern economic terms. I would pay $3,556 to go back and erase that terrible comment to my mom. How’s that?

Yeah, it still sounds silly. Why? Because of how arbitrary the amounts are. My friend could have asked me “how many over-$10,000 regrets do you have, but why that particular number in the question? And how could I be sure that I am valuing my regrets correctly? After all, it is all hypothetical. This isn’t a real auction of regrets. All this economics of regret is stupid.

Okay, how about a moral philosophy of regret? Here’s a totally different way of looking at the problem: my erstwhile Ph.D. advisor, Akeel Bilgrami, came up with a convincing concept in moral philosophy, that of fundamental commitments. Let me explain: we normally hold many moral values, such as “don’t tell lies,” or “don’t hurt people,” or “don’t allow those you love to be hurt,” etc. These values often come into conflict, as we all know well. It may well hurt someone if we tell them the truth. (Does my butt look big in this?) We may have to lie to protect people. (Nazi comes to your house in Berlin in 1940 asking, “Are you hiding any Jews in your house?” and you are.) Now, Akeel’s claim is that while we normally constantly assign greater or lesser values to various of our moral values in negotiating ethical space and deciding what to do, there are certain moral values which we hold that are special. They are special because they are constitutive of our identity. Let me explain by an example that Akeel himself gave in class once: while Akeel was a young Rhodes scholar at Oxford, his roommate was a young man who was dealing heroin. Akeel saw this guy ruining many other students’ lives by getting them hooked on heroin, and protested to him, but he was unrepentent. Still, he was Akeel’s friend, and Akeel liked him in many ways.

One day, the police arrived at the door and told Akeel (his roommate was out) that they knew his roommate was dealing heroin. They demanded to be let in to search the apartment. Akeel asked if they had a warrant. They admitted that they didn’t, but if Akeel told them that he believed his roommate was dealing heroin, they would have a legal excuse (“probable cause”) to come and search the apartment, and if they found anything (which they would have), to arrest the roommate. Now, normally, Akeel should have weighed the destructive influence that his roommate was having on so many young people against his loyalty to his friend, but he didn’t have to: instead, he said, “No, absolutely not. He is not dealing heroin.” Why? Because ratting out a friend would go against a fundamental commitment that Akeel held. That of loyalty to a friend. Had he gone against that, he would no longer know who he was. His identity would break down. He would become another person. Essentially, he would have had a nervous breakdown.

So, second, we have this possible way of isolating the experiences that we “really” regret: they are those that caused us to break one of our fundamental commitments. You may not regret having caused harm to countless young students who were harmed by your roommate, but if you turned him in, you will always regret it. (If loyalty to friends is one of your fundamental commitments, that is.) Yes, maybe. I still don’t know.

The third way of looking at regret that I can think of is due to my wife (who just read what I have written so far), and is related to the second. It is this: regrets are what make you who you are. We are not fixed selves, morally or otherwise, and what we regret is the most important ingredient in what constitutes us. By this view, it is meaningless to ask what our regrets are, because by definition we cannot regret what we are, even if we (in the earlier senses) regret what we have done. I suspect this is correctish. The other thing my wife just said, and again, I think she is right, is that the ultimate literary symbol of regret is the road not taken.

But one more last thing. While we are speaking of literary things, check out Hemingway, the greatest stylist of the twentieth century, as he so easily nails down the concept of regret with the infinitely poignant cadence of a single sentence toward the end of A Moveable Feast:

When I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I loved anyone but her.

My other recent Monday Musings:
Three Dreams, Three Athletes
Rocket Man
Francis Crick’s Beautiful Mistake
The Man With Qualities
Special Relativity Turns 100
Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist
Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments
Cake Theory and Sri Lanka’s President

Poison in the Ink: The Makings of a Manifesto

2005 is being celebrated as the centennial of Albert Einstein’s miracle year, but it is also the less publicized 50th anniversary of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, a document signed by Einstein and other scientists and intellectuals of the time urging the abolishment of nuclear weapons and war.

The endorsement of the manifesto was one of Einstein’s final acts, performed only days before his death. As Joseph Rotblat, one of the signers of the Manifesto eloquently put it, Einstein’s death “gives the manifesto extra poignancy: the last message from the man who was the symbol of the great heights the human intellect can reach, imploring us not to let all this be destroyed by human folly.”

The irony of course, is that it was another letter, sent by Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt, which helped launch the Manhattan Project. Thus, one letter from Einstein helped to usher in the atomic age, and another became his final warning to humanity of its dangers.

Together, these two letters mark dramatic shifts in Einstein’s attitudes: from that of faith and trust in his government’s ability to use nuclear power wisely—as a deterrent and not as a weapon—to disillusionment and outrage over what he saw as a reckless disregard for human life and a growing nuclear threat to all of humanity.

Einstein’s shock was echoed by many scientists around the world, who watched helplessly as what should have been one of the great scientific triumphs of the 20th century was exploited to carry out two of its most heinous acts.

“A splendid achievement of science and technology had turned malign. Science became identified with death and destruction,” Rotblat would later say.

The realization that it was their work that made the atom bomb possible lead to a collective soul-searching among many scientists.

Solly Zuckerman, the Scientific Advisor to the British Government during the 1960’s and 70’s, laid the blame squarely on the scientists: “When it comes to nuclear weapons … it is the man in the laboratory who at the start proposes that for this or that arcane reason it would be useful to improve an old or to devise a new nuclear warhead. It is he, the technician, not the commander in the field, who is at the heart of the arms race.”

There were widespread feelings of anger, regret and despair among many scientists, but eventually there also emerged a growing conviction that they could help right the wrongs they helped create. Indeed, many came to believe that they had a moral and ethical responsibility to do so.

“We [scientists] are not fighters,” wrote Leopold Infeld, a physicists and a signer of the Manifesto. “We care little for power; no great political leader has ever arisen from our circle…We are trained in too many doubts to employ force and to express unconditional belief. But in the fight against destruction our words and thoughts may count.”

It was in this spirit that the Russell-Einstein Manifesto was drafted.

On July 9, 1955, at the height of the Cold War between the United States and Russia, the highly esteemed mathmatician and philosopher Bertrand Russell presented the Manifesto to a room full of international reporters in London.

The Manifesto contained the signatures of 11 eminent scientists and intellectuals drawn from a spectrum of political backgrounds. The most notable among them were Einstein and Russell himself, but many of the others were also Nobel laureates.

With Einstein gone, many American scientists were reluctant to publicly lend their support, but his death also proved to be an unexpected blessing.

As Russell later explained, “As Einstein had died since signing it, I could not make any alteration of substance unless I was prepared to sacrifice his signature.”

The text of the statement was fixed, and Russell was saved the hassle of wrangling with its words to accomadate new signers.

Another important figure in the creation of the Manifesto was Joseph Rotblat, a Polish-born physicist who left the Manhattan Project when he learned that Germany had given up its atomic bomb program. After moving back to the UK, Rotblat helped launch the British Atomic Scientists’ Assocciation and worked to spread the word about the dangers of nuclear weapons.

Rotblat’s position on nuclear weapons never wavered throughout the years. “Nuclear weapons are fundamentally immoral,” he said in a recent address. “Their action is indiscriminate, affecting civilians as well as military, innocents and aggressors alike, killing people alive now and generations as yet unborn.”

Rotblat and Russell met when both were invited to a BBC television program to explain the newly developed hydrogen bomb to the public. Russell was so impressed by the young physicists that he shared with Rotblat his concerns about nuclear weapons and his plans for drafting a declaration to be signed by scientists. The meeting would mark the beginning of a lifelong collaboration and friendship between the two men.

Three years later in 1957, the pair co-founded the Pugwash Conferences, a yearly event that brings together scientists from around the world to discuss ways to hasten nuclear disarmament and find peaceful alternatives for settling global disputes. The text of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto serves as the organization’s founding charter.

Since it’s creation, Pugwash has played a role in the drafting of a number of arms control treaties, including the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.

In recognition of their services, both Rotblat and Pugwash were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995. Russell had died in 1970.

In his acceptance speech, Rotblat made a direct appeal to scientists, urging them to consider the impact of their research on society. Rotblat believed scientists should be required to swear a pledge of ethical conduct like the Hippocratic Oath used by physicians.

Rotblat himself considered the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Pugwash’s greatest accomplishment. Adopted by the UN in 1970, the NPT was almost unanimously approved, collecting 188 signatories, 98% of the UN membership.

The NPT required the nuclear haves and have-nots of the world to each make a promise. The five nuclear weapons states of the time—USA, USSR, UK, China and France—would reduce and liquidate their nuclear stockpiles, while the non-nuclear weapons states would promise not to manufacture or otherwise seek to acquire nuclear weapons.

The NPT was a source of great pride for Rotblat, but also  a source of great frustration. Rotblat was deeply critical of the United State’s actions in particular. In what Rotblat viewed as a direct violation of Article VI of the NPT, the part of the Treaty that provides for nuclear disarmament, the Bush administration requested funds earlier this year to conduct nuclear weapons research and develop a new type of “bunker buster” warhead.

The United State’s also broke promises it made in 2000 to follow a set of 13 steps outlined during the 2000 NPT review to implement Article VI of the Treaty, pointing to the noncompliance of regional states as justification for its actions.

Rotblat died on September 2nd at the age of 97. He was the last surviving member of the signers of the Manifesto. The young physicists who once considered it an honor to join the likes of Einstein and Russell to warn the world of the dangers of nuclear weapons in the end was regarded with their same level of moral authority and did more than any other signer of the Manifesto to help make the group’s vision a reality.

In the 35 years since the NPT, India, Pakistan and North Korea have all joined the ranks of countries posessing nuclear weapons capabilities, increasing the number of nuclear weapons states from five to eight. Israel is also strongly suspected of having a nuclear arsenal and Iran of having an active nuclear weapons program. In light of these developments, the primary message of the Manifesto remains as revelant today as it was 50 years ago:

“There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”

Sunday, September 4, 2005

Fall Books

From The Washington Post:

Autumnbooks80x72 Of making many books there is no end. So it was written in the Bible, and more than 2,000 years later it still is true. Like bread and brick, the book goes on, issuing from presses, outliving all notions of technological change. Perhaps it’s as a Victorian do-gooder once said: “A good book is the best of friends, the same today as forever.” Well, dear reader, get ready for a horde of friends to overrun your house this fall: The sheer volume of book production is breathtaking.

On Beauty: by Zadie Smith (Penguin, Sept.). As if life weren’t chaotic enough for a British art professor and his African American activist wife, their son goes and falls in love with their nemesis.
Saving Fish From Drowning: by Amy Tan (Putnam, Oct.). Eleven American tourists in Burma wander into the jungle and meet a tribe that forever alters their perceptions of life.
Female of the Species: by Joyce Carol Oates (Harcourt, Jan.). More stories from the ever-fevered imagination of an American institution.

More here.

The Thin Line Blew: How a hurricane turned citizens into criminals

William Saletan writes in Slate:Looter

When the history of our disgraceful preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina is written, logistical failures—evacuation, flood planning, aid delivery, communication—will be only half the story. The other half will be our government’s incomprehension of the human part of the disaster. I’m not talking about the victims. I’m talking about the perpetrators, most of them ordinary people. The crime in New Orleans was not isolated. The lawlessness should not have been surprising. Disasters do not tend to bring out the best in people. And if you want to stop them from bringing out the worst, preaching is a lot less effective than weapons and aid.

What’s striking about most of the crime is how ordinary the perpetrators and their motives are. They steal food and clothing. They say it’s for their kids or neighbors. They argue—and some store managers agree—that that the flood would have ruined the goods anyway. Interviewed by reporters, they come off as decent citizens. Some are uniformed officers. You can imagine yourself, in dire circumstances, doing the same thing.

More here.

‘Edmund Wilson’: American Critic

From The New York Times:Wilson2_1

One of the many anecdotes about the fraught relationship between Edmund Wilson and his third wife, Mary McCarthy, dramatizes beautifully the problem of Wilson’s legacy. When Reuel, their son, was 9, he heard McCarthy, for once, praising her former husband. Reuel responded: ”Mommy, you mean my father is a great critic?” He smiled, clearly remembering her previous invectives against his father, and added: ”I always thought he was just a two-bit book reviewer.”

Edmund Wilson was part of a brilliant generation at Princeton. They were too brilliant in some cases to have as much as a first act in their careers; among the rest was F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose final books, ”The Last Tycoon” and ”The Crack-Up,” would be assembled and edited by Wilson. An early essay on Fitzgerald gives some sense of his tone, the quality of his prose and the exacting nature of his judgment. Fitzgerald, he wrote, ”has been given imagination without intellectual control of it; he has been given a desire for beauty without an aesthetic ideal; and he has been given a gift for expression without very many ideas to express.” ” ‘This Side of Paradise,’ ” Wilson wrote, ”does not commit the unpardonable sin: It does not fail to live. The whole preposterous farrago is animated with life.”

More here.

Saturday, September 3, 2005

Homeopathy’s benefit questioned

From BBC World News:Randi

The Lancet says the time for more studies is over and doctors should be bold and honest with patients about homeopathy’s “lack of benefit”. A Swiss-UK review of 110 trials found no convincing evidence the treatment worked any better than a placebo. In 2002, American illusionist James Randi offered $1m to anyone able to prove, under observed conditions in a laboratory, that homeopathic remedies can really cure people. To date, no-one has passed the preliminary tests.

More here.

The spice of life

From The Guardian:Curry_final

What this smart little book does is unpick some of the pathways by which various meats, fish, fruits and rice came together at particular moments in history to produce, say, a lamb pasanda or even our own particular favourite, chicken tikka masala (“curry”, it turns out, is a generic term that Indians themselves would never use). In 17th-century Goa, for instance, it was the visiting Portuguese who taught the local Indians how to make the exquisite egg and milk-based sweets that have since become part of the fabric of eating on the western seaboard. There again, 300 years later, it comes as a shock to learn that Indians of all castes were indifferent to the pleasures of tea-drinking until the beginning of the 20th century. It was only when their British rulers insisted that they try it for themselves, sweetening the experience with the promise of all the money that was to be made from this new cash crop, that the subcontinent gave itself over to the cup that cheers.

More here.

Across U.S., Outrage at Response

From The New York Times:

Anger But perhaps most of all there was shame, a deep collective national disbelief that the world’s sole remaining superpower could not – or at least had not – responded faster and more forcefully to a disaster that had been among its own government’s worst-case possibilities for years. “It really makes us look very much like Bangladesh or Baghdad,” said David Herbert Donald, the retired Harvard historian of the Civil War and a native Mississippian, who said that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s destructive march from Atlanta to the sea paled by comparison. “I’m 84 years old. I’ve been around a long time, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Around the nation, and indeed the world, the reaction to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation stretched beyond the usual political recriminations and swift second-guessing that so often follow calamities. In dozens of interviews and editorials, feelings deeper and more troubled bubbled to the surface in response to the flooding and looting that “humbled the most powerful nation on the planet,” and showed “how quickly the thin veneer of civilization can be stripped away,” as The Daily Mail of London put it. (Picture from The London Times).

More here.

Friday, September 2, 2005

films worth seeing

From Stanley Kaufmann at TNR.

Broken Flowers. Bill Murray, as usual, presents a man who has looked upon the world and found it dubious. Going back now to visit five women he knew some twenty years earlier, one of whom may have had a son by him, he finds surprises and non-surprises. Jim Jarmusch wrote and directed intelligently. (Reviewed 9/5/05)

Junebug. A young Chicago woman, an art dealer, visits her husband’s rustic North Carolina family. She and they discover–or reveal–new areas in themselves. Flawlessly acted, Junebug was directed by Phil Morrison without sentimentality but with true feeling. (9/12/05)

more here.



Chávez’s rising profile and focus on his needy northern neighbors is no doubt getting under the skin of his nemesis President Bush, whom Chávez regularly refers to as “Mr. Danger.” The Bush administration has always been suspicious of Chávez, who is tight with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and in 2000 became the first democratically elected head of state to visit Saddam Hussein since the Gulf War. Washington’s barely concealed glee when a coup briefly deposed Chávez three years ago certainly didn’t help. After Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice fingered Chávez as a “negative force” in Latin America during her confirmation hearings, the Venezuelan retorted that “the most negative force in the world today is the government of the United States.”

more from Slate here.

Before and after Katrina

From MSNBC:New_orleans_2

Now that the storm has passed, Earth-imaging satellites are getting a better fix on the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. The QuickBird satellite, operated by Colorado-based DigitalGlobe, got a clear shot of New Orleans on Wednesday and posted before-and-after views on its Web site. QuickBird’s “after” view, captured from a 280-mile-high (450-kilometer-high), sun-synchronous polar orbit, shows dark floodwaters over highways and even the downtown golf course, as well as the water surrounding the Louisiana Superdome. We’ve created an interactive viewer that labels the landmarks and lets you switch quickly between the before and after views.

More here.

The Aging Enigma

Aging From Harvard Magazine:

Is aging necessary? Are the wrinkles and gray hair, weakening muscles, neurodegeneration, reduced cardiovascular function, and increased risk of cancer that afflict organisms toward the end of their lives inevitable? Or are these age-related changes part of a genetic program that can be altered? Molecular biologists experimenting with organisms such as yeast, roundworms, fruit flies, and mice have found that they can dramatically extend life span by tweaking single genes. The altered organisms don’t just live longer, they age more slowly, in many cases retaining youthful characteristics even after normal individuals have died. More remarkable, the genetic manipulations that cause these changes seem to work through a common pathway across all species. This suggests that if there is a program that controls aging, it must be ancient indeed: in evolutionary terms, yeast and mammals diverged about a billion years ago.

More here.

Thursday, September 1, 2005

clement greenberg


Love him or hate him or care not a whit, there’s no question that Clement Greenberg was one of the smartest and most interesting people writing on art for a generation. As Hilton Kramer (no slouch himself) once remarked “The thing about Clem was, you didn’t have to agree with him to find him the most interesting writer around.”

The following site is a great resource for all things Clement Greenberg.

good one, bad one

There’s an interesting comparison between good writing on art and not so good writing on art. It’s available by comparing Arthur Danto’s recent essay on Smithson with Peter Schjeldahl’s. The peices actually make some similar points. But in the end, one learns so much from Danto whereas from Schjeldahl it’s just … nothing.

Danto at The Nation:

The Whitney show succeeds, I think, in projecting a portrait of the artist as a restless demiurge whose basic genre was the monument, though none of his monuments can fit the space at the disposal of curators. The museum ought to be saluted for celebrating a figure who sought to invalidate the premises on which the idea of that institution rests. I would add that Smithson has become the beau idéal of young artists, more than Picasso, more than Duchamp the kind of figure they aspire to be–anti-institutional, in touch with the environment, hospitable to myth and ritual, alive to the poetry of the wilderness, ambitious in his desire to touch the public through a vision of monumentality that throws the world of the shopping mall and the parking lot into a moral perspective. In that respect the show tells us something about where we are. Spiral Jetty is a critique of modern life as entropy. The rest belongs to the scholars.

Schjeldahl at The New Yorker:

As a figure of freedom, temerity, and lyrical prophecy, Smithson stirs nostalgia among artists and others in the art world, which, for all its wealth and popularity, feels increasingly constricted, faltering, and prosaic. That nostalgia is like a yearning for a lost frontier, troubling the sleep of care-worn suburbanites. Smithson’s example suggests not only that anything can be art but that anyone, with proper fire in the belly, can become a great artist, even without being much good at it. This fit of romance won’t last. It will count again that the works that are on display at the Whitney are drab and tedious. But, for a while, thoughts of Smithson will continue to fuel a present, perhaps eventually fruitful, mood of burning dissatisfaction.

Early warnings of the disaster in New Orleans

From the October 2001 issue of Scientific American:

“New Orleans is a disaster waiting to happen. The city lies below sea level, in a bowl bordered by levees that fend off Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the south and west. And because of a damning confluence of factors, the city is sinking further, putting it at increasing flood risk after even minor storms. The low-lying Mississippi Delta, which buffers the city from the gulf, is also rapidly disappearing. A year from now another 25 to 30 square miles of delta marsh–an area the size of Manhattan–will have vanished. An acre disappears every 24 minutes. Each loss gives a storm surge a clearer path to wash over the delta and pour into the bowl, trapping one million people inside and another million in surrounding communities. Extensive evacuation would be impossible because the surging water would cut off the few escape routes. Scientists at Louisiana State University (L.S.U.), who have modeled hundreds of possible storm tracks on advanced computers, predict that more than 100,000 people could die. The body bags wouldn’t go very far.

A direct hit is inevitable.”

(Related and of interest, Sidney Blumenthal in Der Spiegel.  Also to editorialize, if this the result of the disaster preparation that this administration has been effectively charged with in the aftermath of 9/11, then it seems to have failed big time in one of its basic responsibilities. )

(Hat tips: Linta, Roop and Beth Ann)

The Madrassas in Pakistan

From Despardes:

Madarsas In 1956 there were only 244 madrassas in Pakistan. Recent estimates range from 13,000 to 15,000 with an enrolment of 1.5 to two million (unpublished report by Dr Saleem Ali, Islamic Education and Conflict: Understanding the Madrassahs of Pakistan). The syllabi taught in those traditional madrassas was woefully archaic since much of it was based on assumptions that the earth was flat and the sun and moon rotated around it, while the stars were fixed lights in the seven-tier heaven. The laws and moral values taught also corresponded to a static worldview that made any notion of progress beyond the severely segregated societies of the 7th to 12th centuries impossible to grasp, much less accept. (Picture from

More here.

‘Life code’ of chimps laid bare

From BBC News:

Chimp The scientists say the information is a milestone in the quest to discover what sets us apart from other animals. A comparison shows chimps and humans to be almost 99% identical in the most important areas of their “life codes”. The team tells Nature magazine that future research will tease out the significance of the few differences.

The study shows that our genomes are startlingly similar. We differ by only 1.2% in terms of the genes that code for the proteins which build and maintain our bodies. This rises to about 4%, when non-coding or “junk” DNA is taken into account. The long-term goal of the project is to pinpoint the genetic changes that led to human characteristics such as complex language, walking upright on two feet, a large brain and tool use.

More here.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

One Fed measure of the net impact of offshoring on jobs

From the Federal Reserve Bank of New York:

“Recent concerns about the transfer of U.S. services jobs to overseas workers have deepened long-standing fears about the effects of trade on the domestic labor market. But a balanced view of the impact of trade requires that we consider jobs created through the production of U.S. exports as well as jobs lost to imports. A new measure of the jobs gained and lost in international trade flows suggests that the net number of U.S. jobs lost is relatively small—2.4 percent of total U.S. employment as of 2003.”