Comedy of Terrors

6273b01e2e0811ddab55000077b07658 Ben Lewis on humor in communist societies, in the FT:

On the stand at the Writers’ Congress of 1934 [the pro-regime satirist Mkhail] Kol’tsov repeated the contorted counter-arguments that had been presented in the past decade. Even if one day, when the system was perfect, he conceded, there would be no need for laughter, there was still a place for it now. Even if the satire took the same forms as old-fashioned Tsarist humour, that was no reason to see it as reactionary. Since the working class were, according to Marxist-Leninist theory, the last class before the arrival of a classless society, their laughter was acceptable because, Kol’tsov said ingeniously, “In the history of the class struggle, the working class will have the last laugh.”

Humour offered the early communists the same philosophical conundrums that every other area of culture offered: what belonged to yesterday and what to tomorrow? Many argued that humour could be used to ridicule the old bourgeois habits that persisted … But, said others, given that the Soviets were creating a perfect world, there would soon be nothing left to laugh at in Russian politics or society … No, said others with equal gravity: the liberation of the working classes meant that finally the masses could take control of the language of humour that used to be the preserve of the elite … No, not quite, a third group of straight-faced critics theorised comically, there would still be laughter under communism, but the new society would invent an entirely new sense of humour.

The Sexist Trashing of Michelle Obama

Kathy G. on (Michelle) Obama bashing:

[T]he feminist blogosphere has largely ignored the extremely nasty racism, sexism, and character assassination that has been targeted at Michelle Obama. Worse, some “feminists” have themselves gleefully joined in the Michelle-bashing. Tami quotes one Hillary supporter who wrote a vitriolic post about Michelle with the charming title, “God Damn Michelle Obama”; among other things, the writer takes a cheap shot at Michelle’s physical appearance. Tami also cites a post by another Hillary supporter who attacks Barack for somehow being less than a man; it’s the typically vicious, catty, and extremely sexist Maureen Dowd dealio.

This kind of crap from people who, like Michelle, are Democrats and feminists saddens me. That the right would pull this kind of shit was a no-brainer, but it’s more painful when it comes from people you think are your allies. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me, though. When I wrote an earlier post about the attacks on Michelle, I got a couple of troll-riffic commenters who more or less said that bashing Michelle was a-okay with them, and as best I could tell, those commenters were Democrats.

Computer Simulations of the Evolution of Religion Point to the Role of Non-Believers

Ewen Callaway in New Scientist:

God may work in mysterious ways, but a simple computer program may explain how religion evolved

By distilling religious belief into a genetic predisposition to pass along unverifiable information, the program predicts that religion will flourish. However, religion only takes hold if non-believers help believers out – perhaps because they are impressed by their devotion.

“If a person is willing to sacrifice for an abstract god then people feel like they are willing to sacrifice for the community,” says James Dow, an evolutionary anthropologist at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, US, who wrote the program – called Evogod (download the code here).

Dow is by no means the first scientist to take a stab at explaining how religion emerged. Theories on the evolution of religion tend toward two camps. One argues that religion is a mental artefact, co-opted from brain functions that evolved for other tasks.

Another contends that religion benefited our ancestors. Rather than being a by-product of other brain functions, it is an adaptation in its own right. In this explanation, natural selection slowly purged human populations of the non-religious.

“Sometime between 100,000 years ago to the point where writing was invented, maybe about 7000 BC, we begin to have records of people’s supernatural beliefs,” Dow says.

To determine if it was possible for religion to emerge as an adaptation, Dow wrote a simple computer program that focuses on the evolutionary benefits people receive from their interactions with one another.

“What people are adapting to is other people,” he says.

Repetition as Politics

Amanda_marcotte_15Amanda Marcotte in TPM Cafe, in a book club discussion of Nixonland:

People have become more self-referential, in part because of pop bands like Devo that made arty-farty post-modernism the lingua franca of our era. (Devo is particularly useful—it might have puzzled Norman Lear to have people love his show for both sending up and celebrating the Archie Bunkers of the world, but Devo, which cartoonishly loves and loathes the Silent Majority culture, would have been thrilled for such mixed reactions.) Conservatives who go on “The Colbert Report” know they’re being lampooned; they just hope that it manages to sell a few books anyway.

Self-referentiality may make us smarter, but it has an ugly downside, which Devo predicted by making “We must repeat” the 5th plank in their platform. The thing that’s made me alternately panic and laugh darkly during the whole Iraq war debacle is how the memory of the 60s dominated people’s behavior. We romanticize the 60s, and thus people snapped right into the roles written for us in the past: The liberal hawks hiding behind reasonableness, bloodthirsty conservatives who get teary-eyed at patriotic displays, leftist wanks who think protest is a chance at self-expression and can’t stay focused on the topic at hand (bringing “Free Mumia” signs to war protests), and then of course the larger, dare I say silent, majority of war opponents who do stay on message but can’t seem to catch a break to be heard.

When the Old West Was New

Donna Rifkind reviews The German Bride by Joanna Hershon, in the Washington Post:

Screenhunter_03_may_31_1627Joanna Hershon’s sinuous new novel roams away from the milieu of her two previous books, which were modern family dramas, into the territories of historical fiction and immigration literature. Hershon spins the tale of a German Jewish woman named Eva Frank who, after a hasty marriage in 1865, leaves her wealthy father’s mansion in Berlin to pursue a new life among the “low mud-cake hovels” of the American West. Accompanied by her husband, Eva journeys across the ocean and then across the United States to set up housekeeping in Santa Fe, a makeshift, dirty, danger-ridden settlement that was just beginning to organize itself into a town.

While Eva’s transformation from pampered European cosmopolite to Wild West frontierswoman might sound outlandish, her story is, as a matter of historical fact, not all that unusual. Hershon makes clear in the novel’s “Note on Sources” that she has done research showing that a significant number of European Jews participated in the American westward migration and pioneer life of the 19th century. The most famous of these immigrants — including Levi Strauss (from Bavaria) and Mike Goldwater (from Poland) — made enormous fortunes as boomtown entrepreneurs in California and Arizona. Others settled with their families and flourished in Western frontier towns just as enthusiastically, if not quite as spectacular…

…To the many expressions of this threshold experience in American immigration literature, by authors from Anzia Yezerskia to Jhumpa Lahiri, Hershon adds an eloquent voice.

More here.  Joanna Hershon’s own website is here, where you can read other reviews, interviews, and more.

Saturday Poem

Ruth Stone

Grandma lives in this town;
in fact all over this town.
Granpa’s dead.
Uncle Heery’s brain-dead,
and them aunts! Well!
It’s grandma you have to contend with.
She’s here – she’s there!
She works in the fast food hangout.
She’s doing school lunches.
She’s the crossing guard at the school corner.
She’s the librarian’s assistant.
She’s part-time in the real estate office.
She’s stuffing envelopes.
She gets up at three A.M.
to go to the screw factory;
and at night she’s at the business school
taking a course in computer science.
Now you take this next town.
Grandpa’s laid out in the cemetery
and grandma’s gone wild and bought a bus ticket
to Disneyland.
Uncle Bimbo’s been laid up for ten years
and them aunts
are all cashiers in ladies’ clothing
and grandma couldn’t stand the sight of them
washing their hands and their hair
and their panty hose.
“It’s Marine World for me” grandma says.

Published in Prairie Schooner 71:1 (Spring 1997)


Night Park

Susan Bein in lensculture:

Bein_1 Most people photograph nouns. Or pretty.

I photograph things others hurry by on their way to photograph— things they step over or drive by. I take my camera when there’s nothing to photograph, nothing going on, no one interesting, lousy light.

I photograph verbs, light, questions.

What camera? I’m the camera — not that costly glob of technology I hold up to my face to edit the world. My eyes and brain and the excitement of seeing are what take photos, noticing things, imagining things and sometimes getting gifts that happen like sprinklings of fairy dust.

I’m not in style. I’m not working off an intellectual construct or a big concept. That neck-up stuff seems like so much sawdust to me. No heart in it. No risk. No viscera.

I hope my photos speak to you. I hope they sing songs to you. Songs you’ve never heard before.

More here.

The Future of American Power

Fareed Zakaria in Foreign Affairs:

Fareed_3 Summary:  Despite some eerie parallels between the position of the United States today and that of the British Empire a century ago, there are key differences. Britain’s decline was driven by bad economics. The United States, in contrast, has the strength and dynamism to continue shaping the world — but only if it can overcome its political dysfunction and reorient U.S. policy for a world defined by the rise of other powers.

On June 22, 1897, about 400 million people around the world — one-fourth of humanity — got the day off. It was the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the British throne. The Diamond Jubilee stretched over five days on land and sea, but its high point was the parade and thanksgiving service on June 22. The 11 premiers of Britain’s self-governing colonies were in attendance, along with princes, dukes, ambassadors, and envoys from the rest of the world. A military procession of 50,000 soldiers included hussars from Canada, cavalrymen from New South Wales, carabineers from Naples, camel troops from Bikaner, and Gurkhas from Nepal. It was, as one historian wrote, “a Roman moment.”

In London, eight-year-old Arnold Toynbee was perched on his uncle’s shoulders, eagerly watching the parade. Toynbee, who grew up to become the most famous historian of his age, recalled that, watching the grandeur of the day, it felt as if the sun were “standing still in the midst of Heaven.” “I remember the atmosphere,” he wrote. “It was: ‘Well, here we are on top of the world, and we have arrived at this peak to stay there forever. There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. We are comfortably outside all of that I am sure.'”

But of course, history did happen to Britain.

More here.  (Note: Thanks to Jaffer Bilgrami and S.T.Raza).

A ‘conservative studies’ professor is exactly what calcified universities need

Crispin Sartwell in the Los Angeles Times:

450pxuniversity_of_colorado_engineeThat the University of Colorado is raising $9 million to endow a professorship of conservative studies is rather delicious in its ironies. It smacks of affirmative action and casts conservatism in the syntax of departments decried by conservatives for decades: women’s studies, gay studies, African American studies, Chicano studies and so on.

Furthermore, the idea of affirmative action for conservatives seems gratuitous. These other groups may be oppressed, but conservatives run whole wars, black site prisons, sprawling multinational corporations. In fact, if these other groups are oppressed, it’s conservatives who are the oppressors, which may render faculty meetings a bit tense.

But as an academic who is neither a liberal nor a conservative (anarchism has its privileges), let me tell you why I think a “professor of conservative thought and policy” in Colorado, or anywhere else, is not such a bad idea. Within the academy, conservatives really are an oppressed minority. At the University of Colorado, for instance, one professor found that, of 800 or so on the faculty, only 32 are registered Republicans. This strikes me as high, and I assume they all teach business or phys ed.

More here.  [Thanks to Bilal Siddiqi.]

The Revolution in Cognitive Science and the Decline of Monotheism

Kelly Bulkeley over at The Immanent Frame:

To appreciate the cultural impact of the “cognitive revolution” discussed by David Brooks in his New York Times op-ed column “The Neural Buddhists” (May 13, 2008), we need to be clear about what has and has not been revolutionized by neuroscience. Brooks gets the research essentially right, but he overlooks some key issues raised by “neural Buddhism” that make me question his view of its future effects on religion and culture.

To begin with, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg’s brain-imaging studies of meditation, highlighted by Brooks, can easily be used to confirm rather than disprove a materialist worldview. Newberg’s finding that people who are meditating have measurable decreases in parietal lobe activity fits perfectly with the idea advanced by Richard Dawkins and others that religious experience is a product of altered or abnormal brain functioning. Contrary to the popular view that Newberg’s research supports religion, it can readily be taken as supporting the “militant atheism” Brooks wants to reject. The mind may, as Brooks says, have “the ability to transcend itself,” but we didn’t need Newberg’s SPECT scanners to tell us that.

poussin: historian and fabulist


“Read the story and the painting,” Nicolas Poussin wrote in 1639 to his friend and patron Chantelou, “in order to see how each thing is proper to its subject.” How to think about that—I’ve been puzzling to myself these last three years, looking every week at Poussin, on my trips to the Met and sometimes the Louvre. “Lisez,” Poussin commanded. What would that be, to read a painting? How would it feel in the mind?

Poussin was forty-five when he wrote the letter, living in Rome with a wife, Anne-Marie née Dughet, childless, and with the moderate but definitive success dear to his Norman heart: perpetual commissions from a small but devoted group of patrons, who hung the works in special rooms in their private homes and went to look at them every day. The early struggles in Paris; the failed attempt to get to Italy (turned back at the border for his debts); the first stay in Venice, enamoured of Titian; the eventual arrival in Rome, which was to be his city until his death; the months drawing from the statues of the antique with his friend, the Belgian sculptor Duquesnoy; the syphilitic, raunchy nights and the impoverished, jobbing days: all this had passed. Now, burgher of the erudite brush, he painted.

more from the Threepenny Review here.

people doing bad things


Good people do not, generally speaking, make good subjects for operas. Like the Greek tragedies that the sixteenth-century Venetian inventors of opera sought to recreate, Western musical drama has tended to be preoccupied with the darker extremes of human emotions: excessive passion and wild jealousy, smoldering resentment and implacable rage. These, after all, are the emotions that spark the kinds of actions—adultery, betrayal, revenge, murder—that make for gripping drama. Unpleasant as they may be in real life, such actions are essential to the Western idea of theater itself, in which the very notion of plot is deeply connected to difficulties, problems, disasters. Aristotle, in his Poetics, refers to plot as a knot tied by the author (he calls it a dêsis, a “binding up”) out of the manifold strands representing competing wills or desires or ideologies; an ugly and worrisome knot that will, in due course, ultimately come undone in a climactic moment of loosening or release of tension (the lysis, or “undoing”)—a concept that survives in our term “dénouement.”

There can, that is to say, be no theater unless bad things happen, unless there are terrible problems, insoluble knots; without them, there would be nothing for the characters to do. That “doing” gives us the very word by which we refer to what happens on stage: “drama” comes from the Greek drân, “to do” or “to act.” When we go to the theater, we want to see characters doing things. Bad things, preferably.

more from the NYRB here.

power and sergio


The child of a United Nations official, getting her first look at the UN’s Turtle Bay headquarters in New York, asks her mother how many people work there. “About one in four” is the dyspeptic reply. That old UN chestnut still makes the rounds because it sums up a paper-pushing, jobs-for-the-boys institutional culture that successive “management reforms” have stirred but never really shaken. But among those one in four, the UN every so often attracts, and more surprisingly retains, the loyalty of individuals who would stand out in a crowd of thousands.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the brilliant and charismatic Brazilian troubleshooter whose life is charted in exhaustive, indeed excessive, detail in Chasing the Flame by the almost equally brilliant and charismatic American political academic Samantha Power, was the most flamboyantly unforgettable of that select breed. A soixante-huitard who got his first taste of violence as a student revolutionary manning the Paris barricades, he came to the UN pretty much by chance in 1969 when his immersion in Marxist philosophy – a lifelong fascination which later resulted in an impenetrable doctorat d’État on “the significance of supranationality” – was interrupted by the sordidly bourgeois necessity of earning his keep. His diplomat father had been sacked by the Brazilian junta, for reasons which possibly included a fondness, soon acquired by his son, for Johnny Walker whisky.

more from the TLS here.

Friday Poem




Aretha. Deep buter dipt, burnt pot liquor, twisted sugar cane,
Vaselined knock knees clacking extraordinary gospel.
hustling toward the promised land in 4/4 time, Aretha.
Greased and glowing awash in limelight, satisfied moan
‘neath the spotlight, turning ample ass toward midnight,
she the it’s-all-good goddess of warm cornbread
and bumped buttermilk, know jesus by his first name.
carried his gospel low and democratic in rollicking brownships,
sang His drooping corpse down from that ragged wooden T,
dressed Him up in something shiny, conked that Holy head of hair,
then Aretha rustled up bus fare and took the deity downtown.
They coaxed the DJ and slid electric untill the lights slammed on,
she taught Him dirty nicknames for His father’s handiwork.
She was young then, thin and aching, her heartbox shut tight.
So Jesus blessed her, He opened her throat and taught her
to wail that way she do, she do wail that way don’t she
do that wail the way she do wail that way, don’t she?
Now every time ‘retha unreel that screech, sang Delta
cut through hurting to glimpse been-done-wrong bone,
a born-again brother called the Holy Ghost creeps through that.
and that, for all you still lookin’, is religion.

Dare you question her several shoulders, the soft stairsteps
of flesh leading to her shaking chins, the steel bones
of a corseted frock eating into bubbling sides,
zipper track etched into skin,
all those faint scars,
those lovesore battle wounds?
Ain’t your mama never told you
how black women collect the world,
build other bodies onto their own?
No earthly man knows the solution to our hips,
asses urgent as sirens,
titties familiar as everybody’s mama
crisscrossed with pulled roads of blood.
Ask us why we pray with our dancin’ shoes on, why we
grow fat away from everyone and toward each other.


Why we should love logarithms

From Nature:

Maths I’d never have guessed, in the days when I used to paw through my grubby book of logarithms in maths classes, that I’d come to look back with fondness on these tables of cryptic decimals. In those days the most basic of electronic calculators was the size of a laptop and about as expensive in real terms, so books of logarithms were the quickest way to multiply large numbers. Of course, logarithms remain central to any advanced study of mathematics. But as they are no longer a practical arithmetic tool, one can’t now assume general familiarity with them. And so, countless popular science books contain potted guides to using exponential notation and interpreting logarithmic axes on graphs. Why do they need to do this? Because logarithmic scaling is the natural system for magnitudes of quantities in the sciences.

That’s why a new claim that logarithmic mapping of numbers is the natural, intuitive scheme for humans rings true. Stanislas Dehaene of the Federative Institute of Research in Gif-sur-Yvette, France, and his co-workers report in Science 1 that both adults and children of an Amazonian tribe called the Mundurucu, who have had almost no exposure to the linear counting scale of the industrialized world, judge magnitudes on a logarithmic basis.

More here.

David Byrne’s New Band, With Architectural Solos

From The New York Times:

Byrn THE symphony of Manhattan Island, composed and performed fortissimo daily by garbage trucks, car speakers, I-beam bolters, bus brakes, warped manhole covers, knocking radiators, people yelling from high windows and the blaring television that now greets you in the back of a taxi, is the kind of music people would pay good money to be able to silence, if only there were a switch.

The other day, in a paint-peeling hangar of a room at the foot of the island, David Byrne, the artist and musician, placed his finger on a switch that did exactly the opposite: it made such music on purpose. The switch was a white key on the bass end of a beat-up Weaver pump organ that was practically the only thing sitting inside the old Great Hall of the Battery Maritime Building, a 99-year-old former ferry terminal at the end of Whitehall Street that has sat mostly dormant for more than a half-century.

The organ’s innards had been replaced with relays and wires and light blue air hoses. And when the key was pressed, a 110-volt motor strapped to a girder high up in the room’s ceiling began to vibrate, essentially playing the girder and producing a deafening low hum — like one of the tuba tones played by the mother ship in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Or, if you were less charitably inclined, like a truck on Canal Street with a loose muffler. Mr. Byrne ran his fingers up the keyboard, causing more hums and whines, moans and plunks and clinks until he came to a key that seemed to do nothing.

More here.

Towering Silence

Meera Subramanian in Science & Spirit:

VultureWhen Nargis Baria died at the age of eighty-five in Mumbai, India, her only child, a daughter named Dhun, initiated the death rituals of their Zoroastrian faith. Her mother’s body was dressed in white, prayers whispered in her ear, and after three days a summoned dog’s dismissal indicated that the spirit had moved on. It was time for the nassesalars, or pallbearers, to carry the body to the Towers of Silence, circular structures of stone located on fifty-seven, park-like acres in the heart of Mumbai, surrounded by the upscale high rises of Malabar Hill. They removed her clothing and placed her body in the middle of three concentric circles, one each for women, men and children. At the center was a well where the bones, the last of the last remains of a human body, would be swept in a few days time.

All the proper components of dokhmenashini, the Zoroastrian method of handling their dead, were in place, but the vultures that once completed the cycle by scavenging an exposed corpse in less than five minutes were missing. The custom, so ancient it was described by Herodotus 2,500 years ago, has come to an abrupt end in the past decade, as the vulture population of South Asia has plummeted. In addition to playing a crucial role in processing the human cadavers of this small religious group, vultures filled a vital ecological niche as scavengers of the dead and decaying matter that litters India’s countryside. Now everything has changed, and religious scholars and scientists alike are trying to make sense of the shift.

More here.

Unplanned Freefall? Some Survival Tips

David Carkeet at

Skydive1Admit it: You want to be the sole survivor of an airline disaster. You aren’t looking for a disaster to happen, but if it does, you see yourself coming through it. I’m here to tell you that you’re not out of touch with reality—you can do it. Sure, you’ll take a few hits, and I’m not saying there won’t be some sweaty flashbacks later on, but you’ll make it. You’ll sit up in your hospital bed and meet the press. Refreshingly, you will keep God out of your public comments, knowing that it’s unfair to sing His praises when all of your dead fellow-passengers have no platform from which to offer an alternative view.

Let’s say your jet blows apart at 35,000 feet. You exit the aircraft, and you begin to descend independently. Now what?

First of all, you’re starting off a full mile higher than Everest, so after a few gulps of disappointing air you’re going to black out. This is not a bad thing. If you have ever tried to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, you know what I mean. This brief respite from the ambient fear and chaos will come to an end when you wake up at about 15,000 feet. Here begins the final phase of your descent, which will last about a minute. It is a time of planning and preparation. Look around you. What equipment is available? None? Are you sure? Look carefully.

More here.

Questioning the Sources of and Response to Global Warming


Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public attention from what they see as more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet, including problems of nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and social injustice. Whether they turn out to be right or wrong, their arguments on these issues deserve to be heard.

That’s Freeman Dyson in the NYRB, where he reviews some new books on the topic and offers a different view:

[William Nordhaus] writes that “no such technology presently exists, and we can only speculate on it.” The “low-cost backstop” policy is displayed in his tables as an abstract possibility without any details. It is nowhere emphasized as a practical solution to the problem of climate change.

At this point I return to the Keeling graph, which demonstrates the strong coupling between atmosphere and plants. The wiggles in the graph show us that every carbon dioxide molecule in the atmosphere is incorporated in a plant within a time of the order of twelve years. Therefore, if we can control what the plants do with the carbon, the fate of the carbon in the atmosphere is in our hands. That is what Nordhaus meant when he mentioned “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” as a low-cost backstop to global warming. The science and technology of genetic engineering are not yet ripe for large-scale use. We do not understand the language of the genome well enough to read and write it fluently. But the science is advancing rapidly, and the technology of reading and writing genomes is advancing even more rapidly. I consider it likely that we shall have “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years.