Barbara Ehrenreich cuts an unusual figure in American culture. A prominent radical who never became a liberal, a celebrity, or a reactionary, who built a successful career around socialist-feminist writing and activism, she embodies an opportunity that was lost when the New Left went down to defeat. Since the mid-1970s she has devoted her work to an unsparing examination of what she viewed as the self-involvement of her professional, middle-class peers: from their narcissism and superiority in Fear of Falling and Nickel and Dimed to their misplaced faith in positive thinking in Bright-Sided. Again and again, she has offered a critique of the world they were making and leaving behind them. She is, in other words, both a boomer and the opposite.
At first glance, her new book, Natural Causes, is a polemic against wellness culture and the institutions that sustain it. What makes the argument unusual is its embrace of that great humbler, the end of life. “You can think of death bitterly or with resignation … and take every possible measure to postpone it,” she offers at the beginning of the book. “Or, more realistically, you can think of life as an interruption of an eternity of personal nonexistence, and seize it as a brief opportunity to observe and interact with the living, ever-surprising world around us.” With a winning shrug, she declares herself “old enough to die” and have her obituary simply list “natural causes.”
Ehrenreich contemplates with some satisfaction not just the approach of her own death but also the passing of her generation. As the boomers have aged, denial of death, she argues, has moved to the center of American culture, and a vast industrial ecosystem has bloomed to capitalize on it.
In order to test General Relativity as a theory of gravity, you need to find a system where the signal you’ll see differs from other theories of gravity. This must at least include Newton’s theory, but should, ideally, include alternative theories of gravity that make distinct predictions from Einstein’s. Classically, the first such test that did this was right at the edge of the Sun: where gravity is strongest in our Solar System.
As light from a distant star passes close to the limb of the Sun, it should bend by a very specific amount, as dictated by Einstein’s theory. The amount is twice that of Newton’s theory, and was verified during the total solar eclipse of 1919. Since then, a number of additional tests have been performed to great precision. Each and every time, Einstein’s theory has been validated, and alternatives emerge defeated. Yet on scales larger than the Solar System, the results have always been inconclusive.
Until today. We’ve finally taken that first step towards verifying General Relativity on those large, cosmic scales, where gravity is often the only force that matters.
In an expert analysis commissioned to defend Harvard’s admissions practices against a lawsuit, claiming the elite university discriminates against Asian-American applicants, economist David Card explains that the school uses a complicated multivariate analysis that balances applicants’ academic records with a host of other factors.
Asian Americans are significantly overrepresented among the highest-scoring college applicants in the United States. And an internal Harvard study from 2013 determined that, if admissions committees only considered academic qualifications, the proportion of Asians among Harvard students would rise from about 19 percent to about 43 percent. However, Harvard admissions officials contend that Asians have lower scores on measures of personality, including items for courage, likability, kindness and being “widely respected.”
Card’s analysis shows that while Asians are disproportionately represented among the highest academic achievers, white applicants are more likely to score higher on the personality factors, and more likely to be considered multifaceted applicants. But is Harvard really choosing multifaceted white people with sparkling personalities over one-dimensional Asian academic grinds? Or are scores for “likability” and “kindness” really proxies for other qualities that Harvard doesn’t want to admit are admissions factors?
HALF A CENTURY AGO, when Yukio Mishima’s Sun and Steel was published, reasonable people the world over were entertaining the possibility that a global Marxist revolution really was at hand. Naturally, not everyone was enthused about the prospect. In Japan, where the upheaval was massive, campus demonstrators were regularly attacked by gangs of right-wing phys-ed majors wielding sports equipment. Administrators at Tokyo’s Nihon University at one point publicly requested the help of these reactionary jocks in quelling student unrest. Mishima (1925–70), a reactionary jock himself, was appalled by the demonstrations and by the New Left in general, but bashing people on the head with golf clubs was not his style. Sun and Steel—billed by the author as a “personal history,” but really more of a philosophical tract—has the unhurried cadences of the long game. Mishima was dreaming of imperial restoration, a rewinding not only of the 1960s but also of Bretton Woods, the whole postwar geopolitical order, and, possibly, political modernity tout court. Many contemporary readers of Sun and Steel harbor analogous ambitions. A minor work in the context of world literature, it is a major one in the bizarro universe of white-supremacist arts and letters.
When I’m reading an article or an essay or a story, online, I’m immersed in its texture. I’m feeling the shape of its argument or narrative emerge. I’m utterly under the spell of the writer. And then along comes an asterisk. The asterisk pops me right out of the document. It sends me hurtling into space. And then, I come down on the other side. And what do I find? Surely, there must be some justification for the turbulence, for the violence of being thrust away from the text. No. What I find is the next, logical beat. What I find is the continuation of the previous scene. What I find is something joined so closely to the preceding body of the text, so like it in texture and rhythm and voice and tone as to be utterly indistinct from it. And then I wonder. I wonder why the need for the ejection and reentry? Why the need for the asterisk? Why not a double white space? Why the lightning bolt out of the blue?
Sadlowski embodied the wish for organized labor to wake from its postwar slumber and again throw its weight behind a great movement for a different country, as it had done in the 1930s and before. The AFL-CIO had shamefully backed the Vietnam War; Sadlowski opposed it and denounced the growth of “the weapons economy”—of which steel was very much a part. Many of the unions in the federation, including the USWA, had dragged their heels at best on racial integration of their workplaces; Sadlowski called for strengthening the union’s civil rights apparatus, attracting the support of Jesse Jackson and members of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. Much of organized labor met environmentalism with hostility; Sadlowski dissented. “It’s one hell of a thing for me to say—we just don’t need any more steel mills. We don’t need that kind of industrial growth, at the expense of what the environment should be.” He followed the thought where it led: “Enough with the car!” What more radical claim could a blue-collar worker make about postwar society than to doubt the automobile?
Contrary to the proverbial tree-falling-in-the forest quandary, a musical note that fails to materialize is at least as present in our brain as it would be had it actually sounded. That’s because neural substrates of imagined sound correlate with those of perceived external sounds. The more vivid the image of what must happen, the more jarring it is when that certainty is subverted.
In the 1970s, psychologists Robert Rescorla and Allan R. Wagner proposed that we learn one thing leads to another through the discrepancy between what we expect will occur and what actually transpires.1 When expectation is upended, the surprise makes a strong and lasting impression in our brains. Neuroscientists have found that the brain’s neural signals, critical to learning, are more active when confronted by surprise. I have shown that effect in my own studies at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. A current experiment led by Stanford post-doctoral fellow, Daniel Abrams, utilizing “Shave and a Haircut,” shows that prediction involves signaling throughout the brain. Our hypothesis is that although that final note fails to arrive to the ear, the message that it should have arrived may be detectable in the brainstem. That would suggest that the sub-cortical level of the auditory system is being primed according to a belief system that originates in cortical structures up the chain of the auditory network.
Arundhati Roy does not believe in rushing things. With her novels, she prefers to wait for her characters to introduce themselves to her, and slowly develop a trust and a friendship with them. Sometimes, however, external events force her hand. One of these was the election of the divisive Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi as Indian prime minister in May 2014. At the time, Roy had been working for about seven years on her second novel, the successor to her stunning, 1997 Booker prize-winning debut, The God of Small Things. But Modi’s victory forced her to “really put down the tent pegs” on what would eventually become The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. “It was just a moment of shock for people like me,” says Roy, twirling an elegant, checked scarfaround her neck like spaghetti around a fork. “For so many years, I’d been trying to yell from the rooftops about it and it was absolutely a sense of abject defeat and abject despair. And the choice was to get into bed and sleep for five years, or to really concentrate on this book. I didn’t feel like writing any more essays, although I did write one, but I felt like everything I had to say had been said. It was time to accept defeat.”
It may have felt like defeat to Roy, but the arrival of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness last year was a cause of celebration for nearly everybody else. The novel, now out in paperback, opens in Delhi, in what appears to be the 1950s, and introduces us to Anjum, a Muslim hijra or transgender woman. In the second part of the book, the story moves to Kashmir and we follow a new protagonist, Tilo, an architect who becomes involved with a group of Kashmiri independence fighters. The strands eventually converge, but along the way dozens of odd characters dip in and out of proceedings. It’s not always immediately clear what purpose they are serving; it’s only at the end of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness that you realise what an extraordinary and visceral state‑of‑the-nation book Roy has created.
“What I wanted to know was: can a novel be a city?” says Roy. “Can you stop it being baby food, which can be easily consumed? So the reader also has to deal with complexities that they are being trained not to deal with.”
Buddha took some Autumn leaves
in his hand and asked
Ananda if these were all
the red leaves there were.
Ananda answered that it
was Autumn and leaves
were falling all about them,
more than could ever
be numbered. So Buddha said:
“I have given you
a handful of truths. Besides
these, there are many
thousands of other truths, more
that can ever be numbered.”
by Kenneth Rexroth
from A Book of Luminous Things
Harvest Books, 1996
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When members of the National Socialist Party of America planned to march through the largely Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois, in 1977 with swastikas on their banners, they were not supposed to be interfered with. That was their right; that was what the First Amendment required as far as the regulation of speech on the streets was concerned. But does that right also apply on campus? When a few hundred white supremacists staged a nighttime march through the University of Virginia in August 2017 carrying torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us,” should that have been protected as free speech? Would the campus setting and the link with education have made it just as wrong—perhaps even more wrong—for university authorities and student groups to try to stop the white supremacists in Charlottesville as it was for the village of Skokie to put legal obstacles in the way of Frank Collin and his little band of Nazis forty years ago?
I don’t ask this as a constitutional question. Technically, the First Amendment constrains only government actions, so it applies differently to state colleges like the University of Virginia and private ones like Middlebury College. But let’s put that technicality aside. Behind the First Amendment there is supposed to be a principle of free speech that applies to everyone in our society—a strong ethic that says we should never shut down the expression of controversial views just because of their content. The question is whether that ethic of free speech matters more or less on campus than it does in society generally. Should we say, as Sigal Ben-Porath says in her book Free Speech on Campus, that “colleges and universities hold a unique place in the conversation about speech”?
On her Goop website, Gwyneth Paltrow claimed that charcoal lemonade was one of the “best juice cleansers”. That was in 2014. Today, charcoal products—from croissants to capsules—are everywhere. Even high street coffee chains have taken to selling charcoal “shots”.
Some vendors of these products claim that activated charcoal can boost your energy, brighten your skin and reduce wind and bloating. The main claim, though, is that these products can detoxify your body.
It’s easy to see where the claim that activated charcoal can detoxify the body comes from: it is used in emergency medicine to reduce the toxic load when someone has consumed poison or overdosed on medication. Charcoal binds to poison in the gastrointestinal tract and stops it from being absorbed into the bloodstream. The toxins are then passed out of the body in the stool.
However, this detoxifying action is another case of the non-scientific nutritionists seeing the medical use for something and misinterpreting its application.
In the months leading up to Monday’s Supreme Court punt on the gerrymandering cases out of Wisconsin and Maryland, those hoping the court would rein in partisan gerrymanders had been cautiously optimistic. Justice Anthony Kennedy made it known that if a “workable standard” could be found to distinguish legitimate districting from partisan gerrymandering, he might sign onto it. Reformers thought they had found that standard in something called the “efficiency gap.”
But for now, with the court’s decision to not rule on the central questions the cases raise, we still lack a standard. The light is still green for state legislatures to draw maps as they please, and tempt their luck in the lower courts.
Reformers could certainly try again next year, perhaps finding new approaches to avoid the shoals of standing. But a better approach would be to revamp the antiquated electoral institution that makes elaborate districting schemes both possible and so profitable in the first place — the single-member district. Increase the size of districts (and use ranked-choice voting to improve proportionality) and the predictability of results declines, making gerrymandering far less effective.
It’s no insult to the late Stanley Cavell, whose death at age 91 was announced on Tuesday, that he was the rare philosopher who was read as much for his prose as for his ideas. Although Cavell had all the right academic credentials — he taught at Harvard for many years and was a distinguished advocate for the “ordinary language philosophy” of J.L. Austin — his books were written with an eccentric, sometimes maddening, elan. Cavell’s sentences were alive with allusions in hectic smart-alecky self-mocking prose that seem closer in spirit to a Marx Brothers movie than a philosophic tome.
Cavell, as it happens, loved the Marx Brothers, as he generally did Golden Age Hollywood, particular in its screwball mode. In one of his most accessible books, Pursuit of Happiness (1981), Cavell analyzed the ditzy rom-coms of the 1930s and 1940s as “comedies of remarriage” that showed that love isn’t just a one time starburst moment but a matter of learning to live with other people over time.