The Founders Fight: Adams Goes Home

by Michael Liss

Take mankind as they are, and what are they governed by? Their passions. There may be in every government a few choice spirits, who may act from more worthy motives. One great error is that we suppose mankind more honest than they are. Our prevailing passions are ambition and interest…

–Alexander Hamilton, 1787.

Rogers, W.A. (1981), Now for a round-up (Library of Congress)

March 4, 1800. John Adams, Second President of the United States (and first President to be defeated for reelection) was leaving Washington on the 4:00 a.m. stagecoach to Baltimore, the first stop on his way back home to his beloved home and his wife Abigail. He would not be in attendance when, later that day, his successor (and former Vice President), Thomas Jefferson, would take the Oath of Office and deliver his Inaugural Address.

It was considered by his contemporaries (and most of us would agree) a sour note to end a Presidency. As Washington had voluntarily given up the office when he could have been President-for-Life, a peaceful transition of power was a demonstration of continuity and the stability of a young nation’s experiment in democracy. Adams had lost, fairly so under the rules of the day, and many felt he needed to express public acceptance, particularly at a time when the verdict was not merely a change of person, but also of political philosophy.

There are many explanations for Adams’ behavior, one of which is that Jefferson might have made it known that Adams would not be welcome, but the one that fits best is that, in the absence of a real tradition, Adams was following his heart. He’d had enough of Philadelphia and the new swamp that was Washington, of politics and political infighting, of being judged too harshly for his failures and praised too little for his accomplishments. Like every President since who has lost, the sense of rejection was unavoidable. In Adams’ case, more so because Jefferson and he had once been close, and because some in Adams’ old party, the Federalists, had pointedly withheld support—Alexander Hamilton foremost amongst them, but even some of his old friends. It was time for him to leave. Read more »


On Progress As Human Destiny

by Usha Alexander

[This is the tenth in a series of essays, On Climate Truth and Fiction, in which I raise questions about environmental distress, the human experience, and storytelling. The previous part is here.]

On February 18, 2021, NASA landed Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars. Perseverance is the latest of some twenty probes that NASA has sent to bring back detailed information about our neighboring planet, beginning with the Mariner spacecraft fly-by in 1965, which took the first closeup photograph. Though blurry by today’s standards, those grainy images helped ignite widespread wonder and fantasy about space exploration, not long before Star Trek also debuted on television. By the 1970s, science-fiction storytelling was moving from the margins of pop-culture into the mainstream in film and television—and so followed generations of kids, like myself, who grew up expecting off-world adventurism and alien encounters almost as much as we anticipated the invention of video-phones and pocket computers and household robots, as our conceptual bounds for the human story were pushed ever farther outward.

And so much of our expectation has come true. Smartphones and Zoom calls and Roombas are just the most mundane examples of how our techno-fantasized future has manifested in daily life. There’s promise of even more to come, as cultural forces continuously work to realize not only our imagined technotopia of flying cars and jetpacks, but even to seek out those elusive alien encounters. Perseverance rover is, in fact, a robotic astrobiologist: its purpose on Mars is to seek out direct signs of alien life—microbial fossils, if not living microbes themselves. But even should the Martians disappoint us by their absence, information gathered by Perseverance is still intended to help us make that next “giant leap for mankind”: human colonization of Mars. What was until quite recently still generally regarded an outlandish notion seems now widely accepted as the obvious next chapter in our human Manifest Destiny. Indeed, the more we know about the unsuitability of that cold, airless, radiation-beleaguered rock, the more we seem inspired to conquer it. Read more »

A Fictional Place For Real Encounters

by Rafaël Newman

It’s been 40 years this past month since the election of François Mitterrand as President of France. Today, June 21, is the day chosen by his first Minister of Culture for the Fête de la Musique: what has come to be known as “World Music Day” in the English-speaking countries that have since, along with scores of others, enthusiastically adopted the annual festival.

Mitterrand was the first Socialist in the history of the Fifth Republic to attain the office of president, and his term, historic as well for its unprecedented (and still unrivalled) duration, was characterized among other things by grand gestures of support for culture, both classical and popular, focused not only on Paris but increasingly on the cities and towns of the traditionally underserved French provinces. Following a nation-wide study of amateur musicianship commissioned by Culture Minister Jack Lang, which found that one out of two young people in France play a musical instrument, Mitterrand’s government in 1982 initiated the annual Fête de la Musique, to be held on the day of the summer solstice, and to feature multiple, simultaneous public performances by musicians, both amateur and professional, playing for crowds of varying dimensions, from busker’s circle to stadium-sized audience.

Although Mitterrand’s cultural policy was in some respects a continuation of his predecessor’s efforts at modernization and opening, Giscard’s patrician air had lent his presidency the cast of a bygone era, and it was left to Mitterrand, the former Vichy functionary and perennial also-ran, to reap the benefits of a sea change in French public affairs, symbolized in part by the Fête, an annual celebration of a vital, and vitally homespun, national creativity. The Fête was thus effectively part of an image campaign: a rebranding, or, less cynically and more in keeping with the cultural theory of the era, a re-imagining of the French community, and a libidinous recommitment to its revolutionary pillars of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Read more »

Is this a Dagger and Fork I See Before Me: Menu Items from Shakespeare’s Diner

by Akim Reinhardt, Executive Chef (Marilyn Reinhardt, Megan Golden, Sous Chefs)

Truly, Thou Art Damned Like an Ill-Roasted Egg: Breakfast
All the World’s a Cage Free Omelet 10.99
Get Thee to a Buttery Croissant 8.99
Brevity is the Soul of Grits 5.99
If Muesli Be the Food of Love, Play On 5.99

What a Piece of Work Is Sandwich
Oh That This Too Too Solid Patty Melt 10.99
Eh Tuna Salad, Brute? 8.99
Cry Ham Sandwich and Let Slip the Dijon of War 10.99
Love Is a Smoked Brisket Sandwich Made with the Fume of Sighs 12.99

Better Three Hours Too Soon than a Minute Too Late: Appetizers
Now is the Winter Squash of our Grilled Content 5.99
Neither a Butter Beans Nor Lentils Be  6.99
Hell Is Empty and All the Deviled Eggs Are Here 3/5.99
Now Cracked Pepper a Noble Heart of Artichokes 7.99  

Salad Days
Romaine, Romaine! Wherefore art thou Romaine? 5.99
Two Beets (Red and Golden) or Not Two Beets (Just Red), That is the Salad 9.99
I Come to Eat Caesar Salad Raw, Not to Braise It 8.99
A Woman Would Run Through Fire andWater for Such a Kind Heart of Palm Salad
   11.99 Read more »

Framing Critical Race Theory: Ideology, Schooling And The Production Of Ignorance

by Eric J. Weiner

White people go around, it seems to me, with a very carefully suppressed terror of Black people—a tremendous uneasiness. They don’t know what the Black face hides. They’re sure it’s hiding something. What it’s hiding is American history. What it’s hiding is what white people know they have done, and what they like doing. White people know very well one thing; it’s the only thing they have to know. They know this; everything else, they’ll say, is a lie. They know they would not like to be Black here. They know that, and they’re telling me lies. They’re telling me and my children nothing but lies. —James Baldwin, 1979

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

What and how the Nation teaches its children says a lot about the political principles for which it stands. Through a complex mechanics of curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, discourse, and discipline, public school systems have always operated as cultural and ideological state apparatuses. This means that they help to reproduce the dominant ideological and cultural logic of the nation-state of which they are an integral part. The mechanics of public education change as the ideological and cultural morphology of the state changes. Yet, schools are also sites of struggle over the Nation’s dominant ideological and cultural interests. As Henry Giroux has shown, there is always resistance at the curricular, pedagogical, and discursive levels to the reproductive energies of the state. Teachers, students, parents, and other stake-holders are always, from one side of the ideological spectrum to the other, pushing back against the reproductive mechanics of the school. One articulation of resistance that has become a source of outrage and concern in our current times for many liberals and conservatives is the move by some states, districts and schools to use Critical Race Theory (CRT) to reframe what and how American history is taught.

CRT, explains Stephen Sawchuk, Associate Editor of Education Week, “is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.” Within the context of schooling, CRT researchers and scholars “look at how policies and practices in K-12 education contribute to persistent racial inequalities in education, and advocate for ways to change them.” Researchers working within the framework of CRT over the past 40 years have shown, qualitatively and quantitatively, how systemic racism in the areas of housing, finance, law, healthcare, and education has disenfranchised, marginalized, oppressed, and dehumanized people of color from the Nation’s inception and continue today. Read more »

The future of more meaningful work….post-lockdown, corporate workers take stock

by Sarah Firisen

When we were young, most of us indulged in the speculation, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Many of us said things like a firefighter, a doctor, a nurse, or a teacher. As children, we instinctively looked at the world around us and recognized the careers that seemed to have purpose and meaning, and that seemed to make the world a better place. I can’t imagine that many 5-years olds dreamed of being paper pushers or spending their days doing data entry. But we grow up. People around us have expectations for us; we have expectations for ourselves. We might have academic challenges, financial needs, family obligations. We see the world and the careers open to us as more diverse and as more challenging than the Fisher-Price Little People figures that characterize the world for a child.  And so, many of us lose that childhood idealism and just get a job, get on the career ladder, put our noses to the grindstone.

At the beginning of lockdown, my friend and former colleague Catherine and I started talking about the future of work. This conversation turned into a book that we’re currently writing, and a companion podcast called The Impromptu Game Plan. Our overall premise was, “for the last decade, the digitization of jobs, primarily through automation, has been an exponentially disruptive force.  And then COVID-19 hit.  COVID-19 has devastated entire industries that may never come back, or at least come back in their previous form. It further disrupted the world, the economy, the workforce in ways that we will be living with long beyond the end of the spread of the virus. The economic disruption caused by lockdown has accelerated the workforce displacement already underway due to automation and other technology disruptions.  We’re now living through a perfect storm of human-made and natural disruption that will cause as much reordering in society as the industrial revolution did, perhaps more so.” We thought there was an interesting germ of an idea there, but we had no idea how prescient we would turn out to be. Read more »

Failing to learn from failure

by Callum Watts

The desire to turn failure into a learning opportunity is often generous, and an important way of dealing with the trials and tribulations of life. I first became aware of it as a frequent trope in start-up culture, where, influenced by practices in software development where trying things out and failing is the quickest way to get to something of value, we are constantly subject to exhortations to “fail fast and fail forward”. Many workplaces now lionise (whether sincerely or not is another matter) the importance of learning through failure, and of creating environments that encourage this.

I’ve noticed the idea that failure should be re-conceptualised primarily as a source of learning appearing in many other contexts. Self-help encourages us to think of misfortunes as opportunities for personal development. The peculiar fact that people like Jordan Belfort have become popular figures in the self-help/motivational speaker circuit is striking, but even outside the realm of obvious moral failings, we are encouraged to think of our own tragedies as opportunities for redemption and growth. In the face of covid-19, people talk about what they have learnt from a year in lockdown, how it might have improved them as, and I expect there will be plenty more of this sort of thinking to come in the next couple of years. This though, can become a manic compulsion, which has a distorting effect on our ability to understand the reality of our existential condition. The desire to find in every grief an opportunity, forgets the inescapably tragic dimension of life, and in doing so misses something profound. Read more »

On the Road: In Myanmar, Part Two

by Bill Murray

If you’d like to start at the beginning, read Part One here.

On a piercing-bright, dripping-humid Irrawaddy delta morning in the 1990s, wild, screeching fowl wheeled over trucks full of boys in Chinese dragonheads banging on the side panels, driving in circles, celebrating the new year. The year of the pig had just begun.

The Yangon – Thalyin bridge was three two-and-a-half kilometer, Chinese-built lanes, one in each direction with a rail track separating them in the middle. Having just one lane on a bridge doesn’t keep anybody from passing, of course.

From China all the way around southeast Asia to here, the technique for driving is the same: If you get out around the car in front of you fast enough, you present the oncoming drivers with a fait accompli: I am tying up the entire highway in front of you, so you have no choice but to brake and let me merge in front of the guy beside me.

Naturally the oncoming traffic plots to do the same, and tranquility seldom reigns. Yet in the middle of it all, whole Burmese families plodded by on ox carts or old blue Ford or Dodge “buscars” with men and boys stuffed everywhere inside, standing hanging on the back and a dozen more piled on top. Invariably they all broke into wide smiles and waved madly as they wheezed past. Read more »

A perverse sense of intellectual honor is driving humanities scholars to disciplinary seppuku: Some personal reflections on the book, Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age

by Bill Benzon

Permanent Crisis hits close to home. In the first place, I have been trained as a humanist, my degree is in English Literature. But I have long suspected that the sense humanists have of being under attack (by agencies in the culture at large) is at least as much a feature of humanities culture as it is a perception of the world in which they live. Thus I am biased in favor of the thesis Reitter and Wellmon are arguing.

Second, most of the book is an examination of debates that took place within the German academy in the nineteenth century. Why is that important to me? Because my alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, was explicitly founded on the German model in 1876, the first American university to be so founded. The words Bildung and Wissenschaft that march through this text like Sherman’s troops through Georgia also surrounded me at Hopkins.

But first I urge you to settle into a comfortable chair, pour yourself a drink, coffee, tea, scotch, a white wine spritzer, whatever. This is going to take awhile. As you know, it is customary in some quarters for a reviewer to use the occasion to expatiate on their own views while treating the book under review as but a pendant on that disquisition. I hope, Paul and Chad, that my abuse of this privilege is not so flagrant as is so often the case in, for example, The New York Review of Books but I found your argument so compelling that I had to toss in my 2 cents.

In the first section I lay out their argument as I understand it. Then, after a generous quotation from the book, I illustrate the argument with some observations by the late J. Hillis Miller, a contemporary humanist of the first rank. Miller’s observations set up the third section, where I stray from the text entirely, and discuss the ways in which schools could use the internet to revamp humanities instruction and public outreach in ways suitable to the contemporary world. I loose it entirely in the fourth section, where I explain how one ancient text, Plato’s The Crito, has been central to my own life, and then move closer to the Reiter’s and Wellmon’s text with a discussion of Goethe’s Faust, which also has personal significance. I conclude on a note of measured open-ended pessimism. Read more »

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Finding a deeper truth in irony

Alan Jacobs in The Hedgehog Review:

John Betjeman’s life at Oxford was complicated. He wrote poems and made friends, he discovered beauty and rejoiced in it, but he struggled academically, in part because of an impossible relationship with his tutor, who thought him an “idle prig” and did nothing to disguise his hostility. The tutor complained about Betjeman’s silly aestheticism in his diary, but didn’t confine himself to private musings: He treated Betjeman with open contempt, and when Betjeman needed a supportive letter from him, he wrote a rather obviously unsupportive one––which was one reason among several that Betjeman never managed to graduate. What the tutor did not realize was that Betjeman’s frivolous manner was a kind of protective carapace, a way to shield himself from suffering and emotional upheaval.

The tutor’s name was C.S. Lewis, and before you are too hard on him, please remember that he had just begun teaching, and moreover was not yet a Christian. Later on he and Betjeman had a partial mending of their relationship, but Betjeman never really got over the sting of rejection. He dedicated a book of his poems to Lewis, “whose jolly personality and encouragement to the author in his youth have remained an unfading memory for the author’s declining years.” (Betjeman was 27 at the time.) Later on he wrote a long, anguished, half-apologetic and half-accusatory letter to Lewis, but probably never sent it.

Ultimately they had a lot in common, more and more as years went by and Betjeman drew deeper from the wells of Christian faith and practice. But he never lost the frivolous manner.

More here.

Mathematicians Prove 2D Version of Quantum Gravity Really Works

Charlie Wood in Quanta:

Alexander Polyakov, a theoretical physicist now at Princeton University, caught a glimpse of the future of quantum theory in 1981. A range of mysteries, from the wiggling of strings to the binding of quarks into protons, demanded a new mathematical tool whose silhouette he could just make out.

“There are methods and formulae in science which serve as master keys to many apparently different problems,” he wrote in the introduction to a now famous four-page letter in Physics Letters B. “At the present time we have to develop an art of handling sums over random surfaces.”

Polyakov’s proposal proved powerful. In his paper he sketched out a formula that roughly described how to calculate averages of a wildly chaotic type of surface, the “Liouville field.” His work brought physicists into a new mathematical arena, one essential for unlocking the behavior of theoretical objects called strings and building a simplified model of quantum gravity.

Years of toil would lead Polyakov to breakthrough solutions for other theories in physics, but he never fully understood the mathematics behind the Liouville field.

Over the last seven years, however, a group of mathematicians has done what many researchers thought impossible.

More here.

Speaking Truth to Both the Right and the Left

Emily Bazelon in the New York Times:

Like many public intellectuals who are worth reading, George Packer and Jonathan Rauch don’t toe a predictable line in American political and intellectual debate. They despise Donald Trump and the disinformation-heavy discord he has spawned. But they don’t share all the views of progressives, either, as they’ve come to be defined in many left-leaning spaces. Packer and Rauch are here to defend the liberalism of the Enlightenment — equality and scientific rationality in an unapologetically Western-tradition sense. They see this belief system as the country’s great and unifying strength, and they’re worried about its future.

Packer’s slim book, “Last Best Hope,” begins with patriotic despair. “The world’s pity has taken the place of admiration, hostility, awe, envy, fear, affection and repulsion,” he writes of the perception of the United States abroad. This might have rung true in the throes of the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, which may also be when it was written, but it now sounds overwrought. So does Packer’s claim that “a lot of Americans have explored their options for expatriation.” (The number of expatriates is rising but small, and the cause of the uptick is likely a change in tax law, according to The Wall Street Journal.)

Once Packer gets going, however, he is forceful.

More here.

Worldbending

Akwaeke Emezi in The Paris Review:

In Akwaeke Emezi’s new book, Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir, the writer traces their experience as an ọgbanje, an Igbo term that refers to a spirit born into a human body, through letters to friends, family, and lovers. In the below excerpt Emezi describes trying to find community within their M.F.A. program and their discovery that working fearlessly could be a form of worldbending. 

Dear Kathleen,

Sometimes, you remember me better than I remember myself. I think that’s important in a friendship—to hold reflections of people for them, be a mirror when they start fading in their own eyes. I hope I do the same thing for you, too. I can’t wait for you to get here for Christmas; I know Germany has been hard on you this fall.

The last time we texted, you wrote, I need you and our time this break. I know what you mean. The world can be a grit that sands away at us, and love can be a shelter from that. If this godhouse in the swamp is a wing, then I imagine you arriving and joining me underneath it, where we make syrup with the chocolate habaneros from my garden and sit out on the haint-blue porch. I wish the house was bigger, five or seven bedrooms instead of three, so I could fit more of us in here. We are safer with each other. We see the worlds we’re trying to make, and we lend our power to each other’s spells. I was steaming baos in my kitchen today and I got so excited to show you this house, my house. Just a year ago, you came down to the swamp for Christmas and we stayed in that sublet and cooked fish fresh from the lake. And now I have this house, this land, and the shock of what I made happen still makes me reel when I look at it fully. You think I’d be used to it by now, the way I can make things come true, but every year it expands. Every year I make bigger and bigger things happen—and it’s not just me, obviously. It’s my chi and the deityparents and God and so on, but I have to say yes first and I have to do the work and I can’t believe it works.

You know how people are so in awe of Octavia Butler’s journal, the way she wrote down what she wanted with her books? I think it’s because written worldbending resonates so widely.

More here.

QAnon and on: why the fight against extremist conspiracies is far from over

Tim Adams in The Guardian:

On 7 January this year, a day after the mob stormed the Capitol in Washington DC, a curious exchange occurred in the netherworld of global conspiracy. Alex Jones, the rasp-voiced mouthpiece of fake news for the past decade, was in conversation with the most visible leader of the previous day’s shocking events: Jacob Chansley, the self-styled “Q Shaman” who featured on the world’s front pages, in buffalo horns, animal skins and face paint. Jones, on his fake-news platform Infowars, with its million-plus viewers and sharers, had for years been the loudhailer of unhinged stories that included the belief that Hillary Clinton was the antichrist, that Michelle Obama was a man, that the Pentagon and George Soros had detonated a “homosexual bomb” that turned even frogs gay, that 9/11 had been a “false flag” operation and, most viciously, that the Sandy Hook school murders, in which 20 children and six teachers died, were staged by “crisis actors” to promote gun control. Jones had inevitably been among those who addressed the restive crowd at Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” march (having donated $50,000 for the staging of the rally) and calling for supporters to “get on a war footing” to defend the president. Two days later, however, when faced with the rhetoric of Chansley, whom he had invited on to his show to explain the insurrection, it seemed even he, America’s conspirator in chief, finally couldn’t take the lies any more.

As the Q Shaman launched into his justification of the mob violence that had left five people dead, a diatribe involving reference to the supposed QAnon revelations that the Democratic party was a front for a satanic paedophile ring that Trump was destined to expose and destroy, Jones repeatedly interrupted him. When Chansley asked plaintively why he wouldn’t listen (“you’re a hero to me, man”), Jones cut him off: “Because you’re full of crap!” he yelled. “That’s why! Because every goddamned thing out of you people’s mouths doesn’t come true. I knew what you were on day one and I know what you are now and I’m sick of it! I’m sick of all these witches and warlocks… I can’t talk to you any more. Jesus Christ! Lord help me. Aaargh!”

More here.