Sojourns: Bored by the World Cup

Absolutvisionimg_1_1Let me confess at the outset that my lack of interest in the World Cup is matched only by my ignorance of the sport itself. Call me what you will. A philistine. A provincial. A vulgarian. An ugly American. But I have not been getting up in the morning to watch the matches. There is a reason for this I think. Sports are an acquired taste and deeply autobiographical. I grew up on the Jewish faculty-brat diet of baseball and basketball. By the time I was in college and self-consciously developing an interest in the arts and literature, televised sports seemed like something from a distant planet. When I returned to watching sports in my thirties, it was with the intense relish of rediscovering forgotten pleasures. I wanted the sweet succor of bygone days and older knowledge. Learning new things was for different regions of my brain and other times of day. Thus soccer fell between the cracks in my life. Too bad for me, I hear you say.

By not developing an interest in the World Cup, or at any rate by not professing one, I am something of a traitor to my own professional class. Even the most sports-averse and tweed-adorned professor these days can be seen taking a break to watch the surprising run of Ghana or the stalwart march of the Germans. (I find no great surprise, for example, that this very website, ordinarily so earnest and sober, so interested in international affairs, science, and medicine, has two separate bloggers reporting from the games.) The World Cup has in other words developed an odd kind of reach. It is both sports and not sports. Clearly billions of people who grew up in countries other than my own feel an intensity of fandom I cannot really understand, but which equally clearly provides the kind of visceral pleasure in viewing I can. I am however not interested here in what motivates soccer fans in the countries where the sport thrives. What I’m interested in, rather, is the acquired situational appreciation of soccer and its elevation into a sport that is more than a sport.

Gauloises1_1Perhaps I should just phrase this is as a simple question. Why do intellectuals or the chattering classes or the intelligentsia care so much about the World Cup? The least generous answer is simple Europhilia. Like smoking Gauloises or eating haggis, watching the tournament expresses a kind of vicarious belonging to a different continent, a sign that you spent your junior year abroad in Florence or Paris or Edinburgh and, when pressed, even know a word or two in a different language. Seen this way, one’s viewing habits provide a form of cultural capital and means of distinction. The sport is not simply a competition like the World Series; it is rather something of an aesthetic artifact, the appreciation of which becomes a badge of sophistication. It is, in the words of the New York Times, a “beautiful game.”

To be a little less cynical, the World Cup is for some clearly less about sports than about international relations and politics. On this account, the games are interesting for their allegorical significance. Teams really do represent nations after all. If say Ghana defeats France then centuries of colonialism and domination are momentarily upended in a great reversal of fortune. Even the uglier dimensions of the tournament—violence, “hooliganism,” racism, and the like—are interesting because they express some underlying sociological or political cause. One is interested in the sport not because it is a “beautiful game” but because of what it reveals about class tensions, race war, the new Europe, etc.

In either case, viewers of the World Cup watch the game from a sort of distance: the distance of aesthetics or of politics. The first translates the game into a mark of distinction and cultural capital; the second translates the game into an allegory or a symptom. The thing about such distance, at least for me, is that it gets in the way of the deeply intuitive and primal enjoyment that accompanies watching a sport with which one is intimately familiar. So I return to autobiography. Suburban kids now seem to be introduced to soccer as a matter of course. (Hence the specter of the American “soccer mom” looming large over pollsters and politicos everywhere.) When I was in elementary school back in the 70s, however, soccer was only beginning to be touted as the next thing to come. Some day soon, we were told, everyone would be kicking checkered balls, right about the same time as we would be measuring things in metric. The great metric conversion never came. And by the time soccer camps and leagues sprung up I was very much into other things. I simply never developed the self-transcending pleasure watching soccer that I did with other sports.

I tend not to think my own history is that unique, so I doubt that many Americans of my generation did either. While I am interested in the interest in the World Cup, therefore, the tournament itself leaves me bored.

Monday Musing: Susan Sontag, Part 2

The first part of this essay can be found here.

Inevitably, the exaltation and dreams of unity that she harbored during the Sixties were to disappoint Sontag, as they did everyone else. She was going to have to come down from those heights and find her own version of Zagajewski’s soft landing. And that is another thing that makes Susan Sontag so remarkable. At her most exalted, writing in 1968, just after returning from Hanoi, she says:

“I recognized a limited analogy to my present state in Paris in early July when, talking to acquaintances who had been on the barricades in May, I discovered they don’t really accept the failure of their revolution. The reason for their lack of ‘realism’, I think, is that they’re still possessed by the new feelings revealed to them during those weeks—those precious weeks in which vast numbers of ordinarily suspicious, cynical urban people, workers and students, behaved with an unprecedented generosity and warmth and spontaneity toward each other. In a way, then, the young veterans of the barricades are right in not altogether acknowledging their defeat, in being unable fully to believe that things have returned to pre-May normality, if not worse. Actually it is they who are being realistic. Someone who has enjoyed new feelings of that kind—a reprieve, however brief, from the inhibitions on love and trust this society enforces—is never the same again. In him, the ‘revolution’ has just started, and it continues. So I discover that what happened to me in North Vietnam did not end with my return to America, but is still going on.”

The world did return to normalcy, if not worse. But Sontag didn’t indulge in the outright lunacy of the New Left as it spiraled off into fantasyland. (Though she did endorse something of the mood of the New Left in one of her less successful and rather more hysterical essays “What’s Happening in America? (1966).” Still, when the chips were down she didn’t take that path. She kept her head.)

And the hint as to how she kept her cool is already there in the above passage. Her commitment to the integrity of the individual mind was a buttress for her. The solid structure of her mental edifice, built with that sternness of pleasure she never abandoned, allowed her to come in for a soft landing while people like the Situationists or the Yippies or The Weathermen floundered or came apart at the seams.

More than that, she was able to recognize her own missteps and rethink her exaltation. Even as she continued to lament the way in which her new experiences were sullied and her new consciousness never came to pass, she realized that much of its promise, especially in its political variants, had been an illusion. Increasingly in her essays in the Eighties and Nineties she celebrated the writers and artists of Central and Eastern Europe who fought the disaster of the ‘revolution’. In 1997, she was to write, “Intellectuals responsibly taking sides, and putting themselves on the line for what they believe in . . . are a good deal less common than intellectuals taking public positions either in conscious bad faith or in shameless ignorance of what they are pronouncing on: for every Andre Gide or George Orwell or Norberto Bobbio or Andrei Sakharov or Adam Michnik, ten of Romain Rolland or Ilya Ehrenburg or Jean Buadrillard or Peter Handke, et cetera, et cetera.”

She came to see that communism in Vietnam had been a lie and a farce, even as the Vietnamese resistance to the American war machine had been noble and just. She went to Bosnia again and again and never, for even a moment, indulged in the repellant apologies for Serbian nationalism that many of her colleagues on the Left dishonored themselves with. In fact, she always saw Europe and North America’s failure in Bosnia as another manifestation of the shallow interest in material happiness and comfort.

Such a vapid happiness was not what Sontag was referring to in her quest for difficult pleasure.


This is not to say that she was happy about politics and culture after the Sixties. Sometimes she was outright despondent. Sometimes she felt she had been tricked. She marveled how her own arguments had come back to haunt her. Things that she had advocated for in the Sixties were realized in ways completely contrary to her original intentions.

For instance in her seminal essay “Against Interpretation” (1962), she argued that criticism had become too Baroque. It was preventing immediate appreciation of things as things. So she made a call for transparence. “Transparence,” she said, “means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.” And then notoriously, at the end of the essay, she proclaimed, “In place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.”

Later, she came to realize that history had pulled something of a fast one on her. People did begin to appreciate, even worship, surface and appearance. Camp moved further into the mainstream. But it wasn’t happening in the way that Sontag intended. In a preface to Against Interpretation written in 1995 and entitled “Thirty Years Later . . .” she addressed the issue.

“It is not simply that the Sixties have been repudiated, and the dissident spirit quashed, and made the object of intense nostalgia. The ever more triumphant values of consumer capitalism promote–indeed, impose–the cultural mixes and insolence and defense of pleasure that I was advocating for quite different reasons.”

She won a battle at the expense of the greater victory she was hoping for. There was a revolution in a sense, and a democratizing of culture. But Sontag realized that it wasn’t leading to pleasure, real pleasure. Instead, it led to a devaluation of the seriousness of intellect that Sontag took to be a prerequisite for genuine pleasure. In what she calls her own naiveté, Sontag, in the Sixties, made an appeal for changes that consumer culture was only too ready to provide during the next few decades. But those changes came as an empty package. Talking thirty years later about the essays of Against Interpretation, she says, “The judgments of taste expressed in these essays may have prevailed. The values underlying those judgments did not.”

In response to this cruel trick of history, Sontag did verge dangerously close to nostalgia on occasion. Perhaps that is understandable. Her problem was even more acute than the problem of the Central Europeans for whom she had such sensitivity. Central Europeans might look back with some wistfulness on the intense seriousness of the ‘bad old days’ but they were, still, the bad old days. For all of Sontag’s hesitation in identifying with the Sixties as a movement, it was during those years that she experienced her greatest pleasures in art and understanding. They weren’t bad old days at all for her.

And she felt that as she was getting older she was simultaneously witnessing the disappearance of much of what had given her the greatest pleasure. In 1988, she expressed this as a European elegy. Europe, to Sontag, always represented resistance to the tide of philistinism—she even calls it barbarity—that emanates from America and its consumer culture. She says, “The diversity, seriousness, fastidiousness, density of European culture constitute an Archimedean point from which I can, mentally, move the world.”

By the late Eighties, she believed that that Archimedean point was drifting away as Europe became more homogeneous and “Americanized”. Without naming it directly, her contempt for the idea of European integration (this, again, in 1988) is palpable. What she calls the ‘diversity’ of Europe is predicated, for Sontag, on preserving the differences that come with national and thereby cultural boundaries. But with all the language of preservation and loss, Sontag manages to rescue the essay from outright nostalgia. She recognized the malleability and relativity of the “idea of Europe”. The idea of Europe is at its most potent, she argued, when wielded by the Central and European intellectuals who used it, implicitly, as a critique of the Soviet domination they were resisting. But Sontag was also aware that the rallying cry of “Europe” was distinctly unpalatable when raised in Western Europe as a warning against the new immigration. This latter point has only become more incisive in recent years. As always, Sontag was ahead of the times.

Indeed, by the end of her lament for Europe, Sontag turns a corner. Having aired her grievances, she begins to move forward. She comes in for another soft landing. She begins to shift onto another battlefield, moving just as quickly as modern experience does. That quickness, that readiness to move at the pace in which new experiences present themselves allows her, in seeming paradox, to find what is solid and lasting in things. “The modern has its own logic,” she writes, “liberating and immensely destructive, by which the United States, no less than Japan and the rich European countries, is being transformed. Meanwhile, the center has shifted.”

Having started “The Idea of Europe (One More Elegy)” by veering into a cultural conservatism that she spoke so eloquently against in her earliest essays, she manages to steer herself back into more Sontag-like territory. She is prepared to become an exile again, as she always was in the first place. Exiled in the sense that every intellect of integrity stands alone in the last instance, as a self. In asking what will happen next, as the greatness of Europe fades and transforms, Sontag refers to Gertrude Stein’s answer to those who wondered how she would deal with a loss of her roots. “Said Gertrude Stein, her answer perhaps even more Jewish than American: ‘But what good are roots if you can’t take them with you’.”


Susan Sontag always understood the melancholic personality lingering in the back alleys of modern consciousness. She understood the will to suicide in men like Walter Benjamin. She knew why Benjamin lived under the sign of Saturn and could write:

“The resistance which modernity offers to the natural productive élan of a person is out of proportion to his strength. It is understandable if a person grows tired and takes refuge in death. Modernity must be under the sign of suicide, an act which seals a heroic will . . . . It is the achievement of modernity in the realm of passions.”

Sontag understood the will to death and failure in Artaud. She understood the will to silence in Beckett and John Cage. Not only did she understand these things, she could write about them clearly, put her finger on them. She knew that Nietzsche’s prognostication about the coming nihilism had come to pass in much of the modern, and modernist, aesthetic she cherished so dearly.

She felt the exhaustion of the modern spirit. But she wasn’t exhausted by it. In her essay on Elias Canetti, “Mind as Passion,” she wrote the following;

“‘I want to feel everything in me before I think it’, Canetti wrote in 1943, and for this, he says, he needs a long life. To die prematurely means having not fully engorged himself and, therefore, having not used his mind as he could. It is almost as if Canetti had to keep his consciousness in a permanent state of avidity, to remain unreconciled to death. ‘It is wonderful that nothing is lost in a mind’, he also wrote in his notebook, in what must have been a not infrequent moment of euphoria, ‘and would not this alone be reason enough to live very long or even forever?’ Recurrent images of needing to feel everything inside himself, of unifying everything in one head, illustrate Canetti’s attempts through magical thinking and moral clamorousness to ‘refute’ death.”

Sontag is writing about Canetti but she is writing about Sontag too. As much as she measured and reported the pulse of an era in thought, art, morals, . . . as much as she eulogized its passing, she also stood for the brute continuation of life, of pleasure, and of joy. She’s dead now, but there is nothing that stimulates a desire to live more than reading one of her essays. If it so happens that we’re stumbling into an age of new seriousness and new sincerity we’re doing so partly because Susan Sontag showed us how important the world can be.

The Other Intelligent Design Theories

David Brin in Skeptic Magazine:

While scientists and their supporters try to fight back with judicious reasoning and mountains of evidence, a certain fraction of the population perceives only smug professors, fighting to protect their turf — authority figures trying to squelch brave underdogs before they can compete. Image matters. And this self-portrayal — as champions of open debate, standing up to stodgy authorities — has worked well for the proponents of Intelligent Design (ID). For now.


Yet, I believe they have made a mistake. By basing their offensive on core notions of fair play and completeness, ID promoters have employed a clever short-term tactic, but have incurred a long-term strategic liability. Because, their grand conceptual error is in believing that their incantation of Intelligent Design is the only alternative to Darwinian evolution.

If students deserve to weigh ID against natural selection, then why not also expose them to…

More here.

Regilous Chauvinism Shuts Down M. F. Hussain Exhibition

Awaaz South Asia Watch, which does a lot to fight Islamist fanaticism and the Hindu fascism of groups such as the RSS in the subcontinent, is fighting to reopen an exhibition of work by an Indian Muslim artist.

South Asia Watch urges Asia House, London to re-open the exhibition of the work of renowned Indian artist, MF Husain. Awaaz condemns the forced closure of the exhibition following violence, harassment and intimidation by fundamentalists claiming to represent the views of British Hindus. The fundamentalists who vandalised the paintings reflect the authoritarian ideologies and tactics of militant Hindu Right groups in India.

In India, organisations such as the extremely violent Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other organizations linked to the fascist-inspired Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) [1], have repeatedly attacked MF Husain and other artists, filmmakers, intellectuals and cultural practitioners. In 1998, Hindu Right groups attacked and ransacked Husain’s Bombay home, one of several such attacks on the artist and his work. Hindu Right groups have regularly attempted to undermine the freedom of thought and expression enshrined in the Indian constitution and reflected in the vibrancy of Indian culture.

In Hindu traditions there is an extensive history of wide and diverse representations of the sacred deities, including nude, erotic and other depictions. Hinduism has never possessed a concept of censorship or blasphemy of the kind that authoritarian groups wish to promote. A key reason the exhibition is being attacked is because MF Husain is a Muslim. Groups involved have used religious claims to mask a political agenda that owes to the Hindu Right, an agenda which has caused considerable violence and misery in India since the 1980s.

The Growing Indian Online Game Market

The East Asian craze for online gaming spreads to the subcontinent, which oddly sees it as something to compete with East Asia over, in Wired.

Add another category to India’s intensifying regional competition with China: online gaming.

Five years after China pulled away from its giant southern neighbor in all things internet, young Indians are logging on for Quake 4 and Counter-Strike marathons in rapidly growing numbers. Deepening PC and broadband penetration, together with invigorated promotion and heightened game awareness, have India on the cusp of an online gaming explosion.

And those leading the charge aren’t shy to admit that the elephant has a dragon in its sites.

“We are going to catch China by 2010,” says Sukamal Pegu, the 24-year-old founding member of the gaming division at Indiatimes Online, South Asia’s largest internet service provider. “It will be a challenge, but we’re making strides on China every day.”

The Universal Library and The End of the Author

In The New York Times Book Review, John Updike sees an end to authorship with the digitization of the written word.

Last month, The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy article that gleefully envisioned the end of the bookseller, and indeed of the writer. Written by Kevin Kelly, identified as the “senior maverick” at Wired magazine, the article describes a glorious digitalizing of all written knowledge. Google’s plan, announced in December 2004, to scan the contents of five major research libraries and make them searchable, according to Kelly, has resurrected the dream of the universal library…

Unlike the libraries of old, Kelly continues, “this library would be truly democratic, offering every book to every person.” The anarchic nature of the true democracy emerges bit by bit. “Once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page,” Kelly writes. “These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or ‘playlists,’ as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual ‘bookshelves’ — a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf’s worth of specialized information. And as with music playlists, once created, these ‘bookshelves’ will be published and swapped in the public commons. Indeed, some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages.”…

This is, as I read it, a pretty grisly scenario. “Performances, access to the creator, personalization,” whatever that is — does this not throw us back to the pre-literate societies, where only the present, live person can make an impression and offer, as it were, value?

Like a Conspiracy Virgin

From Mother Jones:

Madonna_265x306_1 Commentary: Musings on the Material Girl Matrix: By Bill Santiago

Call me paranoid. But hey, I attended the Madonna concert right after spending the weekend at Conspiracy Con 2006, a gathering of folks who swear Humpty Dumpty was the victim of an inside job.

Did I mention I was sitting right up front? I’ve never even been that close to the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner. Her appeal was paranormal. Beyond superstardom, and approaching the pop-spiritual. I felt I was in the presence of a shape-shifting daughter of the Illuminati, a Manchurian material girl, a queen of mind-control with a multi-millionaire mind by whom I desperately wanted to be abducted.

It was totally awesome. Resistance was futile.

More here.

The Simple Life

From The New York Times:

Ali190_1 ‘Alentejo Blue,’ by Monica Ali

CALL it the prodigy’s paradox: If the world greets an author’s first novel with bear hugs and cries of “Huzza,” the second effort nearly always gets the cold shoulder, the suspicious look. Often, there are rumblings that the second novel might never have been published if not for the success of the first. But is that fair? Is it possible to judge a sophomore effort solely on its own merits?

The prodigiously gifted Monica Ali has found a way to sidestep this booby trap. Her second book, “Alentejo Blue,” a loosely interwoven collection of stories set in and around a Portuguese village, has so different a voice, tempo, mood and theme from her first book, “Brick Lane,” that the two seem to share no family resemblance, no authorial DNA. It’s almost as if they were produced by different writers.

“Brick Lane,” published three years ago when Ali was 35, is a sprawling yet tightly cohering novel, set in London and Bangladesh, that uses one woman’s unwieldy life to put a human face on the struggle between the first world and the third, Islam and secularism, tradition and modernity, fate and free will, men and women, youth and age. It’s the kind of achievement that entitles its creator to sit with her hands folded for the rest of her days, knowing she has produced a lasting work and need only write again if she really feels like it. Clearly, Ali feels like it. Her new book demonstrates her versatility and hints at the breadth and variety of her interests.

More here.

The forgotten founder: John Witherspoon

Roger Kimball in The New Criterion:

He is as high a Son of Liberty, as any man in America.
—John Adams on John Witherspoon, 1774

1768Who is the most unfairly neglected American Founding Father? You might think that none can be unfairly neglected, so many books about that distinguished coterie have been published lately. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington—whom have I left out? It has been a literary festival of Founders these last few years, and a good thing, too. But there is one figure, I believe, who has yet to get his due, and that is John Witherspoon (1723–1794). This Scotch Presbyterian divine came to America to preside over a distressed college in Princeton, New Jersey, and wound up transmitting to the colonies critical principles of the Scottish Enlightenment and helped to preside over the birth and consolidation of American independence.

More here.


“After years as a purely experimental science, a decade-long international effort will make nuclear fusion a reality.”

Britt Peterson in Seed Magazine:

It’s hard to take fusion energy seriously when its proponents employ descriptors like “power of the Sun” and “energy from a star” to explain it. This kind of hyperbole—and the fact that scientists have never created a sustained fusion reaction capable of generating more electricity than it soaks up—make fusion sound like a fantastical scheme devised by Lex Luthor. But in the wake of the current energy crisis, new money and political support may finally channel enough resources into fusion to make the elusive process a reality.

On May 24, the US, EU, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan and India signed on to help build the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in Cadarache, in the south of France. ITER is the largest fusion research project to date and one of the biggest international scientific collaborations ever. Its budget is 10 billion euros over 20 years, more than three times that of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The reactor is scheduled to be functional by 2016.

More here.

The Threat to the Planet

Jim Hansen in the New York Review of Books:

Gore_al20060713Animals are on the run. Plants are migrating too. The Earth’s creatures, save for one species, do not have thermostats in their living rooms that they can adjust for an optimum environment. Animals and plants are adapted to specific climate zones, and they can survive only when they are in those zones. Indeed, scientists often define climate zones by the vegetation and animal life that they support. Gardeners and bird watchers are well aware of this, and their handbooks contain maps of the zones in which a tree or flower can survive and the range of each bird species.

Those maps will have to be redrawn. Most people, mainly aware of larger day-to-day fluctuations in the weather, barely notice that climate, the average weather, is changing. In the 1980s I started to use colored dice that I hoped would help people understand global warming at an early stage. Of the six sides of the dice only two sides were red, or hot, representing the probability of having an unusually warm season during the years between 1951 and 1980. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, four sides were red. Just such an increase in the frequency of unusually warm seasons, in fact, has occurred. But most people —who have other things on their minds and can use thermostats—have taken little notice.

More here.

An Assessment of the AFL-CIO’s Dissidents’ New Federation One Year After the Split

Nearly a year ago, 6 major unions left the AFL-CIO and, with a seventh that’d left years ago, formed Change to Win, in order to pursue new strategies for organizing labor. In The American Prospect, a look at the new federation’s first year.

The organization’s own Web site tells the tale. It references six Change to Win campaigns: the Hotel Workers Rising campaign of UNITE HERE, an effort the union has been planning for five years to organize the entire Hilton chain; Uniform Justice, a three-year-old, largely stymied joint effort of the Teamsters and UNITE HERE to unionize the Cintas laundry company; Justice at Smithfield, a nearly 12-year-long campaign by the UFCW to unionize the world’s largest hog slaughterhouse; a joint effort of SEIU and the Teamsters to organize bus drivers who are employees of a British conglomerate; the Teamsters port campaign; and a public awareness campaign directed at Wal-Mart.

Every one of these campaigns antedates Change to Win. Every one of them would be proceeding whether or not Change to Win had come into existence. In one way or another, the Change to Win unions are helping these campaigns out, but to date, that help consists chiefly of having smart people design a blueprint.

What the smart people haven’t done is figure out how to initiate the kind of large-scale endeavor Woodruff spoke of, that would justify the establishment of a whole new federation and the sundering of the old one. In the months leading up to Change to Win’s formation, leaders of SEIU, UNITE HERE and the Teamsters spoke of Change to Win undertaking massive campaigns of its own. Teamster President Jim Hoffa pledged his union to back such action on the day he announced it was leaving the AFL-CIO. But no such campaigns have been launched, because two fundamental impediments stand in their way.

What to Do in Iraq, A Roundtable

Larry Diamond, James Dobbins, Chaim Kaufmann, Leslie H. Gelb, and Stephen Biddle (responses and counter-response to Biddle’s article from March/April 2006) on how to what to do in Iraq, in Foreign Affairs. James Dobbins:

When states disintegrate, the competing claimants to power inevitably turn to external sponsors for support. Faced with the prospect of a neighboring state’s failure, the governments of adjoining states inevitably develop local clientele in the failing state and back rival aspirants to power. Much as one may regret and deplore such activity, neighbors can be neither safely ignored nor effectively barred from exercising their considerable influence. It has always proved wise, therefore, to find ways to engage them constructively.

Washington’s vocal commitment to regional democratization and its concomitant challenge to the legitimacy of neighboring regimes work at cross-purposes to its effort to form, consolidate, and support a government of national unity in Iraq. Iraqi political leaders will work together only if and when they receive convergent signals from their various external sponsors. The administration’s drive for democratization in the region, therefore, should be subordinated (at least for the next several years) to its efforts to avert civil war in Iraq. Unless Washington can craft a vision of Iraq and of its neighborhood that all the governments of the region can buy into, it will have no chance of securing those governments’ help in holding that country together. The central objective of U.S. diplomacy, therefore, should shift from the transformation of Iraq to its stabilization, with an emphasis on power sharing, sovereignty, and regional cooperation, all concepts that Iraq’s neighbors can reasonably be asked to endorse.

Planet Wal-Mart

John Lanchester in the London Review of Books:

SamwaltonThe moment of revelation is a little different for every person who experiences it. For Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, the road to Damascus came in the form of a pair of knickers. At the time – 1945 – Walton was in his late twenties, and was running a small department store in Newport, Arkansas belonging to a franchise called Ben Franklin. Walton had grown up in Missouri and attended the state university, then gone on to a clerical job during the war. He married Helen Robson, borrowed some money from her lawyer-banker father, then opened his Ben Franklin ‘variety store’.

The life-changing pair of panties appeared in a list of goods sold by a garment-industry middleman in New York. The pants were ‘two-barred, tricot satin panties with an elastic waist’ and their price, $2 a dozen, was 50 cents cheaper than that offered by Walton’s current supplier. This differential allowed Walton to sell the knickers at four for $1 instead of three for $1. The panties began to get up off the shelves and walk out of the shop on their own.

More here.

The Secrets of Supervolcanoes

Ilya N. Bindeman in Scientific American:

0006e0bfbb43146cbb4383414b7f0000_1Lurking deep below the surface in California and Wyoming are two hibernating volcanoes of almost unimaginable fury. Were they to go critical, they would blanket the western U.S. with many centimeters of ash in a matter of hours. Between them, they have done so at least four times in the past two million years. Similar supervolcanoes smolder underneath Indonesia and New Zealand.

A supervolcano eruption packs the devastating force of a small asteroid colliding with the earth and occurs 10 times more often–making such an explosion one of the most dramatic natural catastrophes humanity should expect to undergo. Beyond causing immediate destruction from scalding ash flows, active supervolcanoes spew gases that severely disrupt global climate for years afterward.

More here.

The lone wolf

“Beloved in the West, scorned by Japanese literati, Haruki Murakami tries to make his own world, a realm of jazz and rhythmic writing.”

Ben Naparstek in the Melbourne Age:

Lone_wolf_narrowweb__300x3500HARUKI MURAKAMI would seem the very picture of the Japanese writer-prophet. He gazes out over the rooftops of Tokyo’s chic suburb of Ayoama, speaking in low, urgent tones about Japan’s rightward lurch.

“I am worrying about my country,” says the 57-year-old writer, widely considered Japan’s Nobel laureate-in-waiting. “I feel I have a responsibility as a novelist to do something.”

He is particularly concerned about Tokyo’s popular governor, the novelist Shintaro Ishihara. “Ishihara is a very dangerous man. He is an agitator. He hates China.”

As Murakami discusses plans to make a public statement opposing Ishihara, and weave an anti-nationalist subtext into his next novel, it’s hard to recognise the writer often derided by the Tokyo literati as an apathetic pop artist – a threat to the political engagement of Japanese fiction.

More here.

A startling array of weapons

Julian Borger in The Guardian:

A braided leather whip, a sniper rifle, six jars of fertiliser and a copy of the “Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook” were among the presents foreign leaders have given George Bush. They are clearly trying to tell him something.

The inventory of official gifts from 2004, published this week by the state department reads like the wish list of the sort of paranoid survivalist who holes up in his log cabin to await Armageddon, having long ago severed all ties with the rest of the world.

The president received a startling array of weapons, including assorted daggers, and a machete from Gabon. He got the braided whip with a wooden handle from the Hungarian prime minister. The “Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook”, a gift from the Sultan of Brunei, has some tips on how to use some of these implements in a tight spot.

More here.

Mature sperm and eggs grown from same stem cells

From Nature:Egg_1

Stem cells from a mouse embryo have been coaxed into producing both eggs and sperm in the same dish. The eggs and sperm are the most mature yet grown in the lab, and the advance brings researchers closer to their ultimate aim: producing human eggs and sperm from adult body cells so that infertile men and women can have their own children.
Applying the technique to humans would be controversial, not least because it raises the possibility that men might be able to produce eggs, and women sperm. But researchers point out that any human application would be decades away, which would allow time for ethical debate over the technology.

In the meantime, they hope that lab-produced eggs and sperm will help them to learn exactly how these cells are created in the body, something that is crucial to understanding fertility disorders and embryo development.

More here.

The Year of Henry James: The Story of a Novel

From The Guardian:

Jamesh1 Lodge argues in The Year of Henry James, his record of the affair, that James has always been both a writer’s writer and a critic’s writer. Since Lodge himself is both together, the allure in his case proved doubly strong. But as he points out, James also created some of the most memorable women characters of the period, which makes him fit meat for the feminists; and queer theory gets a look in, too, as gay critics debate exactly how repressed his (probable) homosexuality was. In any case, novels about historical figures have become fashionable in the past decade or two, as Lodge reminds us, and a lot of these have been writers on writers. Literary types have never been notable for their lack of narcissism, and this book is no exception.

There’s another reason, however, for this rash of Henriads, which one wouldn’t really expect Lodge to note. In a post-political age, writers are more likely to be enthused by exquisite states of consciousness or the intricacies of personal relationships than by more workaday matters; and the aloof, fastidious James, a man famously described as chewing more than he could bite off, appears to fill this bill exactly.

More here. (For Anjuli Kolb who made me read James again recently).

After Freud

“On his 150th anniversary, Freud’s legacy is being dismantled by the ideas of his greatest challenger, Aaron Beck. Cognitive therapy is now the orthodox talking cure in Britain, and the government wants more of it. But with cognitive science comes a new battle for the meaning of the human mind.”

Alexander Linklater and Robert Harland in Prospect:

Essay_linklater_1Psychoanalysis is hardly redemptive, and never promised to be. When early patients of Freud’s complained to him that nothing could change the original circumstances which made them unhappy, he agreed—with a caveat: “Much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” This is one of Freud’s most celebrated remarks, though it appears in Studies in Hysteria, which was published in 1895, before he had developed the full psychoanalytic method. But it captures the pessimism—or realism—which threads its way through all Freudian practice. It is one of the peculiar fascinations of psychoanalysis that a method seized upon by so many in the search for self-transcendence should have sprung from a man so captivated by the irredeemability of human nature.

“The crowning paradox of psychoanalysis is the near-uselessness of its insights,” Janet Malcolm wrote in the New Yorker in 1983. “To make the unconscious conscious—the programme of psychoanalytic therapy—is to pour water into a sieve. The moisture that remains on the surface of the mesh is the benefit of the analysis.”

More here.