Poole on Mememetics

Steven Poole’s re-tagged us with the “Five Blogs that Make You Think” meme. Since I’ve already done it, I’m not going to revisit the meme (I guess we’re inocculated now). I did like Steven’s intro, since it does raise the issue of why despite the problems with the concept of “memes” it still persists in an almost self-confirming way, albeit self-consciously so.

As they say in the exciting new language of the internets, I’ve been “tagged with a meme”. Actually it first happened a few months ago, but I forgot about it, possibly having decided to take a stand against Meme Fascism, and possibly also because I don’t believe in memes anyway, since arguably the idea of a “meme” encodes a denial of individual agency and creativity, shored up by an annoyingly defective analogy with evolution. “Meme” is just another pseudoscientific attempt to explain culture (or rather to explain it away), destined (I hope) for the garbage bin of terminological fashion just as soon as William Gibson stops using it. You can imagine how it only compounds my irritation to realise that I used it myself in the post immediately below this one. It’s almost like the word “meme” is some kind of evil virus of the mind.

Siegman on the Middle East Peace Process

In the LRB, Henry Siegman on the Mid-East peace process:

[A]ll previous peace initiatives have got nowhere for a reason that neither Bush nor the EU has had the political courage to acknowledge. That reason is the consensus reached long ago by Israel’s decision-making elites that Israel will never allow the emergence of a Palestinian state which denies it effective military and economic control of the West Bank. To be sure, Israel would allow – indeed, it would insist on – the creation of a number of isolated enclaves that Palestinians could call a state, but only in order to prevent the creation of a binational state in which Palestinians would be the majority.

The Middle East peace process may well be the most spectacular deception in modern diplomatic history. Since the failed Camp David summit of 2000, and actually well before it, Israel’s interest in a peace process – other than for the purpose of obtaining Palestinian and international acceptance of the status quo – has been a fiction that has served primarily to provide cover for its systematic confiscation of Palestinian land and an occupation whose goal, according to the former IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon, is ‘to sear deep into the consciousness of Palestinians that they are a defeated people’. In his reluctant embrace of the Oslo Accords, and his distaste for the settlers, Yitzhak Rabin may have been the exception to this, but even he did not entertain a return of Palestinian territory beyond the so-called Allon Plan, which allowed Israel to retain the Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank.

Undercover, On the Wall, In your Face, For Peace!

From lensculture.com:


JR is a young French photographer who has become a hero to many people who encounter his work. He doesn’t use his real name, because most of the work he does is illegal. JR makes provocative black-and-white photos, and enlarges them into very large billboard size prints. Then, with a friend or two, under cover of the night, he illegally pastes these photos onto large walls in very public urban spaces. His illegal work has been celebrated by several outlets of mainstream media, and he has been granted official, authorized exhibitions of his photographs in prominent places in Paris and Amsterdam in recent years.

This summer, JR was invited to show his work at the international photo festival in Arles, France, where he covered the walls of a large roofless warehouse with his images to the amazement and delight of thousands of photography lovers.

More here.

The rebirth of a nation

From The Guardian:

Misra Vishnu’s Crowded Temple
by Maria Misra.

Misra, who teaches modern history at Oxford, has undertaken an ambitious project. She attempts to telescope more than 150 years of India’s history into this book and tries to show, as she tells us in its closing pages, ‘how India has developed its peculiar form of modernity, the most striking feature of which is its highly atomised, fragmented and diverse citizenry’. At the heart of her book are the sections on the two men seen as central to the story of modern India: Mahatma Gandhi, the most prominent leader of the nationalist movement and known as the father of the nation, and his protege, Jawaharlal Nehru, who went on to become India’s first Prime Minister. Misra is unfairly harsh on Gandhi, seeing him as idiosyncratic, traditionalist and with a gift for combining political shrewdness with a sense of self-promotion and opportunism.

She has unmixed admiration for Nehru, who she sees as the opposite of Gandhi in many ways: ‘He differed from Gandhi in the most important question of the age: modernity. While Gandhi romanticised the Indian past, both real and imagined, Nehru was in love with the future. Gandhi decried the Raj as the harbinger of modernity, while for Nehru it was the detested heart of the ancien regime. Nehru was a technophile, a religious agnostic, cosmopolitan in his tastes and an instinctive internationalist; the Mahatma was the opposite.’ The template of pluralism that is the key to India’s enduring democracy, Misra argues, was conceptualised and laid out by Nehru. And she sees that – and the foresight and vision that implies – as his biggest contribution. ‘Nehru’s goal was to make a virtue of India’s variety by creating the world’s first self-consciously multicultural modern nation state.’

More here.

rights talk


What would grim old Hobbes have to say about my attempts to dignify him by making him a cryptic teacher of human dignity? I frankly have my doubts—though, if he spoke the truth about the soul and the body, he is not now turning over in his grave. To be sure, the arguments I advance in the last five paragraphs are not those of Hobbes, and I doubt whether he would agree that the claim of natural rights already implies the presence of something dignified that rises above life’s material preconditions. Yet I also suspect that Hobbes would regard himself a true patron of human dignity, by helping to secure peace and justice, through his sound moral teaching.

Be this as it may, which is to say, leaving Hobbes in peace and claiming the argument for myself, I am now in part content. For I believe I can see in the natural right of self-preservation a foundational human dignity, one that points toward, as it safeguards, the higher dignity of realized humanity. Though I persist in believing that there is more dignity in human achievement than in human possibility, more dignity in noble self-sacrifice than in base self-aggrandizement or even mere self-assertion, more dignity in defending rights than in exercising or even claiming them, I am convinced that any doctrine of natural human rights rests on a prior presupposition of natural human dignity, and thus serves to support the basic dignity of human being as such.

more from The New Atlantis here.

moses’ child


I am what one might call a child of Robert Moses. While ‘the Power Broker’ (as Moses was christened by Robert Caro in his 1974 doorstop biography of the same name) completed some of his most ambitious projects in the 1940s and ’50s, my 1970s and ’80s were dominated by the fruits of his massive revisioning of New York City and its environs. There were the swimming lessons at Jones Beach, the long drive along the Southern State Parkway, interrupted only by humid cries for ice cream and toilet breaks. Then, after a schism in the family, the Long Island Expressway between Manhattan and Nassau County became a weekly reminder of why the road came to be called the world’s longest car park. Outdoor Shakespeare at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park punctuated my teenage summers. As an adult, shuttling between a job in San Francisco and a boyfriend in Morningside Heights, the Cross-Bronx Expressway was my bleary wake-up call after the red eye into La Guardia. Moses came to dominate large portions of my – and countless New Yorkers’ – experience of New York to such an extent that it is nearly impossible to imagine a version of the city before him.

more from Frieze here.



Tools imply the kind of world that needs fixing—after all, what good is a screwdriver if there are no screws?—and so you can read the Leatherman as a text of our times. It’s a tool you would expect to arise when unprecedented mobility takes people far from their toolboxes and home workshops. When I think about Tim Leatherman’s nine-month, 20-country trip in the finicky Fiat, when he invented the multitool, I’m astonished by the audacity of it. Was there ever a time when Americans roamed the Earth with such impunity? To think that all he required was a better set of pliers.

The Leatherman also suggests a kind of Archimedes-like hubris: Give me a Leatherman and a place to stand, and I’ll move the world.

more from West Magazine here.

the pickle dealer


It’s one of the stranger quirks of history and geography. The continent that was supposedly discovered by Christopher Columbus is named for a decidedly second-rate Johnny-come-lately of an explorer named Amerigo Vespucci. Like Columbus, Vespucci was an Italian who sailed on occasion under the flag of Spain. But unlike Columbus, Vespucci was more at home in a counting house than a sailing ship. (Even Ralph Waldo Emerson, normally a booster of all things American, dismissed him as a mere “pickle dealer.”) What Vespucci did have, according to Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s wonderfully idiosyncratic and intelligent new biography of the explorer, was a gift for chicanery and self-promotion, along with an aching need to be remembered. As it turns out, America — this nation of notorious hucksters, dreamers and spin doctors — was named for just the right guy.

more from the NY Times Book Review here.

Raul Hilberg & The Distance of Victims

Gustav Seibt on the great Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, who died last week (originally in Süddeutsche Zeitung, trans in signandsight.com).


When Hilberg’s main work, “The Destruction of the European Jews,” came out in the USA in 1961, practically no one recognised its importance. It seemed to be a history in which the victims had no face and the perpetrators no physiognomy. No one, not even even astute contemporaries like Hannah Arendt, recognised that precisely these two characteristics – the distance of the victims and the intangibility of the perpetrators – were essential conditions of the historical process of the extermination of the Jews.

In Germany, similarly, Hilberg’s achievement initially met with little response. German historical writing had concentrated on the spectral leaders of the Third Reich, to whom it attributed superhuman powers in pushing through their saturnine goals. These goals were then precisely ordered in terms of the history of ideologies. In this context, analyses of the network-like, multi-polar structure of modern management practices were of no interest. On the side of the victims, equally, Hilberg met with bitter criticism for his rather casual treatment of their resistance. Until today, “The Destruction of the European Jews” has not been published in Israel.

Consequently it took an incredible twenty years before Hilberg’s work – which had been consistently brought up to date – was brought out in German, the language in which the vast majority of its sources were written. The small publisher promptly ruined itself in the process. And an additional twenty years had to pass before its author was honoured in Germany with two prizes and an order of merit.

James Kelman on His Early Days As a Writer

In the Guardian:

“Nice to be Nice” was my earliest attempt at the literary or phonetic transcription of a speaking voice. It so happens that the voice belongs to a working-class man from Glasgow. The story is told in the “I-voice”, a first-person narrative. It was difficult to do. I spent ages working on it but learned much from the process.


It was one of the stories I later sent to Mary Gray Hughes. She commented on my early stories, and it was important to me, even if I disagreed with some of it. She advised caution in my use of “dialect”, and warned me of the risk of alienating the reader. Mary Gray Hughes recommended I look at the work of Flannery O’Connor and Emily Brontë’s use of dialect in Wuthering Heights. Of course I had my own opinions about “dialect” and I sent her “Nice to be Nice”. She replied, “Forget all I said about dialect . . . you obviously know what you are doing better than anyone.” I never bothered about alienating readers, neither then nor now. The priority was to write the story properly. The readers could take care of themselves.

My original intention in “Nice to be Nice” was to use the phonetic transcription only for the narrative. I thought to apply Standard English form for the dialogue. It was an attempt to turn the traditional elitist assumption on its head. I was irritated by so-called working-class writers who wrote third-party narratives in Standard English then applied conventional ideas of phonetics whenever a working-class character was called upon to say a few words. When a middle-class character entered the dialogue all attempts at “phonetics” disappeared; his or her lines were transcribed in standard form, leading to the extraordinary presumption that Standard English Literary Form is a literal transcription of Upper-Class Orature.

Not So Dismal After All?

David Colander in American Scientist:

If it were really the main point of Diane Coyle’s new book to argue that economics is a soulful science, this would be a negative review. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Most of The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and Why It Matters is devoted to a grand whirlwind tour of modern economics, with fascinating vignettes of individual economists. It’s a trip worth taking, because what economists do has changed considerably in the past two decades, and the textbooks haven’t kept up. Coyle, who is both a journalist and a Harvard-trained economist, is ideally suited to the role of tour guide: She understands economists as only a fellow economist can, and she can write, as most economists cannot.

Coyle’s tour begins with the economics of development and growth. She describes the work of Angus Maddison, a leading economic historian who has collected statistics on the growth that has occurred over the millennia, and she outlines the ongoing debate about the meaning of those statistics. She then characterizes economists as “passionate nerds,” making her point with perceptive snapshots of three well-known members of the profession—New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and recent Nobel laureates James A. Heckman and Joseph E. Stiglitz.

More here.

Saturday Qawwali Special II

In qawwali singing, there is a tradition of improvisational singing of the names of the musical notes in Urdu (“Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, and Ti” are called “Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da, and Ni” in Urdu). Each name, like Sa, is sung in the pitch which it denotes, and it can be done very fast by some people. Here you can see the Pakistani master singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan improvising in the middle of a qawwali:

Another improvisation by Nusrat here.

See my first Saturday Qawwali Special at 3QD here.

The Enemies Of Reason

Peter Millar in the Times of London:

Dawkins_194721aThey sang about it back in the 1960s, taking their clothes off on stage and extolling “mystic crystal revelation and the mind’s true liberation”. Few back then dared hope that their new age would one day be a broad enough church to embrace the heir to the throne and the wife of a prime minister. Cherie Blair has worn Mexican “bio-electric shield” pendants, Prince Charles endorses alternative medicine, and those hallowed shrines of capitalist consumer-ism Selfridges and Harrods host the Psychic Sisters mediums.

Even modern global oil corporations have used dowsers to search for deposits But now Richard Dawkins, the man who told you that God was not only dead but had all along been a bogeyman invented by bogeymen, has levelled his sights at the whole new age caravanserai, including astrologers, spirit mediums, faith healers and homeopathic medicine. Is it high noon for the Age of Aquarius? It is the believers in Aquarius (and Leo and Taurus and Pisces) who attract the first body blow in Dawkins’s new Channel 4 series The Enemies of Reason, which begins next week.

Dawkins is horrified that 25% of the British public has some belief in astrology – more than in any one established religion – and that more newspaper column inches are devoted to horoscopes than to science.

More here.

criminalize to marginalize

Paromita Shah at New America Media via Oneworld:

Immigration reform is dead – at least for the time being – but more raids, detentions and deportations continue.

But we also face a new emerging “deportation” strategy – one from local and state governments that seek to pass laws that essentially “deport” immigrants from the towns and the states in which they live.

The concept is simple: pass laws that make the lives of immigrants so miserable that they will be forced to leave, turning them into internal deportees in the United States.

According to the Washington Post, state and local governments have filed over 1,000 such bills. While most empower local police to act as immigration agents, a significant number obstruct immigrants’ ability to obtain jobs, use necessary medical services, send children to public schools, find housing, get driver’s licenses and receive many other government services. For example, the notorious Hazelton town ordinance required tenants obtain an occupancy permit from the city before renting a unit. One had to prove lawful residence or citizenship to get the permit. The town imposed hefty fines, $1,000, for violation of the ordinance.

The analogy to Jim Crow laws is inescapable. Towns like Hazelton complain of overcrowding, crime and strained resources, much like proponents of Jim Crow laws did when they oppressed and discriminated against African-Americans. Fortunately, late last month, a federal judge declared the Hazelton ordinance unconstitutional because it would have violated due process and interfered with federal law. It also fragmented a community and polarized it along color lines, not immigration ones. The 200-page decision contained excruciating detail about how U.S. citizen Latinos were harassed by Hazelton residents with the introduction of these ordinances.

More here.

balochistan rebels

Willem Marx in Prospect, via Oneworld:

Pakistan_ethnic_80 The Toyota pick-up truck roared through the green gates into the dusty walled compound and juddered to a halt inches from a small well. Eight figures, their faces swathed in cloth, stood up stiffly from their crouched positions before clambering down. They lifted their weapons gingerly from the floor where they had lain concealed. I counted five semi-automatics, a light machine gun and a green rocket-propelled grenade launcher before the vehicle’s driver slammed his door. Iran’s most wanted terrorist walked towards me with his hand extended, a dazzlingly white smile beneath a Pashtun hat.

But 24-year-old Abdulmalik Rigi is not Pashtun, he’s Baloch—an ethnic minority that straddles an area across southeast Iran, southwest Pakistan and south Afghanistan. In February, the Iranian city of Zahedan was hit by a bomb—for which Rigi claimed responsibility—that killed 11 Revolutionary Guards, and placed Rigi at the top of Tehran’s hitlist. A series of American media reports had linked Rigi’s guerrilla attacks to a wider US-sponsored covert war against Iran. Rigi had agreed to meet me, a western journalist, to publicly refute these allegations, which he says have been levelled against his group by the mullahs of Iran.

Balochistan is a vast expanse of territory separating the middle east from the Indian subcontinent (see below—the Baloch region is coloured pink). The Baloch people are ethnically heterogeneous but united by their language and culture, and their Sunni Islam faith. In the late 19th century, the highly tribal Baloch homeland was carved up by British India, Afghanistan and Persia, and the Baloch have thus never enjoyed a modern sovereign state. Nevertheless, the difficult terrain kept the Baloch relatively isolated, allowing them to preserve a centuries-old cultural heritage, and in both Iran and Pakistan they have offered armed resistance to central government control since the early 20th century.

More here.

a book of grievances

Reza Aslan at Slate:

Reader A spate of books has appeared over the last year, gathering the words of America’s enemies. The first and best of these is Messages to the World, a collection of Osama Bin Laden’s declarations translated by Duke University professor Bruce Lawrence, in which Bin Laden himself dismisses Bush’s accusation that he hates America’s freedoms. “Perhaps he can tell us why we did not attack Sweden, for example?”

Now comes a second, more complete collection, The Al Qaeda Reader, edited and translated by Raymond Ibrahim, a research librarian at the Library of Congress. Unlike Lawrence, Ibrahim includes writings from both Bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. And while both volumes provide readers with a startling series of religious and political tracts that, when taken together, chart the evolution of a disturbing (if intellectually murky) justification for religious violence, Ibrahim’s collection is marred by his insistence that his book be viewed as al-Qaida’s Mein Kampf.

The comparison between the scattered declarations of a cult leader literally dwelling in a cave and the political treatise of the commander in chief of one of the 20th century’s most powerful nations may be imprecise, to say the least. But Ibrahim’s point is that we can learn about al-Qaida’s intentions by reading their words, that a book like this can help Americans better understand the nature of the anger directed toward them.

More here.


From The Daily Telegraph:

Lennon_3 Whether you’re a fan of John Lennon’s music or not, this enthralling film tells the real-life story of a man who was so driven by his own convictions that he was willing to risk his artistic reputation and the alienation of his enormous fan-base in order to uphold his beliefs. Film-makers David Leaf and John Scheinfeld trace Lennon’s evolution from everyone’s lovable pin-up to an anti-war activist who helped inspire a whole generation of young people to have a political voice. His growing interest in politics coincided, particularly in the US, with a distinct rise in anti-war sentiments, the civil rights movement and the New Left.

Despite its subject matter, The U.S. vs John Lennon shows Lennon and, to a lesser extent Yoko, as funny, intelligent artists who only employed crazy stunts such as their honeymoon bed-in to highlight their causes. Although there’s not a lot of personal content in this film the scenes with Lennon playing with his young son Sean are heartbreaking as they were filmed shortly before Lennon was shot outside his New York apartment.

More here.

Look Who’s Talking

From The New York Times:

Chomsky How and when did we learn to speak, and to what extent is language a uniquely human attribute? Christine Kenneally, a linguistics Ph.D. turned journalist, shrewdly begins “The First Word,” her account of this new science, with candid portraits of several of its most influential figures. Appropriately, the first chapter is devoted to Noam Chomsky, whose ideas have dominated linguistics since the late 1950s, and who, as Kenneally reports, has been hailed as a genius on a par with Einstein and disparaged as the leader of a “cult” with “evil side effects.”

According to Chomsky, humans are born with the principles of grammar hard-wired in their brains, enabling them, from an early age and without formal instruction, to construct an infinite variety of sentences from a finite number of words. Moreover, Chomsky has suggested, language is a peculiarly human phenomenon, a trait so remarkable that evolutionary theory is virtually helpless to explain it. “It surely cannot be assumed that every trait is specifically selected,” he wrote in 1988. “In the case of such systems as language … it is not easy even to imagine a course of selection that might have given rise to them.” Chomsky’s impatience with the question of language’s origins effectively squelched inquiry into the subject for decades. 

More here.

Global warming is grossly exaggerated

Freeman Dyson at Edge.org:

DysonfThe main subject of this piece is the problem of climate change. This is a contentious subject, involving politics and economics as well as science. The science is inextricably mixed up with politics. Everyone agrees that the climate is changing, but there are violently diverging opinions about the causes of change, about the consequences of change, and about possible remedies. I am promoting a heretical opinion, the first of three heresies that I will discuss in this piece.

My first heresy says that all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the computer models. Of course, they say, I have no degree in meteorology and I am therefore not qualified to speak. But I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.

More here.