Dialogue, debate or disagreement? How useful is the distinction between ‘East’ and ‘West’ in today’s world?

From Himal Southasian:

East If it was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who preached that the East and the West are inseparable, it was Rudyard Kipling who became famous for advocating the idea of their perpetual incompatibility. Today, the foremost characteristic of any East-West discourse continues to be a wrangle over a mutual cultural misunderstanding. The ‘West’, the East Asian studies scholar Martin Bernal has suggested, is as much a construction as the ‘East’ of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Likewise, Victor David Hanson, the author of the influential book Why the West has Won: Carnage and Culture fron Salamis to Vietnam, wrote in 2002 that “the East continues to stereotype the West, with not a clue about its intrinsic nature.” Hanson mockingly portrayed non-Westerners as baffled by a “mysterious Western paradigm – the freedom to speak freely”. For Avishai Margalit and Ian Buruma, Occidentalism, or the popular understanding of Western cultures, constitutes “a cluster of images and ideas of the West in the minds of its haters”. They infer that what is really hated about the West by those who only know it from afar is its secularity and rationalism. But do such vague notions on either side really hold any water in today’s globalised context?

More here.

Sunday Poem

Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long.
–Bob Dylan, Mississippi, Love and Theft

Bad Timing

Our enthusiasm fostered these days that run
among the crowd of days all alike.
Our weakness placed on them
our last hope.
We used to think and time that should have been priceless
was passing us poorly
and these are, well, the coming years.

We were going to solve everything now.
Life was ahead of us.
It was best not to act rashly.

by Enrique Lihn
from The Dark Room and other poems;
New Directions Books, 1963


Nuestro entusiasmo alentaba a estos días que corren
entre la multitud de la igualdad de los días.
Nuestra debilidad cifraba en ellos
nuestra última esperanza.
Pensábamos y el tiempo que no tendría precio
se nos iba pasando pobremente
y estos son, pues, los años venideros.

Todo lo íbamos a resolver ahora.
Teníamos la vida por delante.
Lo mejor era no precipitarse.

The Intersecting Lives of da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the World They Shaped

From The Wshington Post:

Book Five hundred years after his death, Cesare Borgia still ranks as one of history's most reprehensible figures: ruthless, power-hungry and peacock-vain. But his reputation as a brute obscures the full human dimensions of this duke who sought to reunite Italy and place himself at the head of a new Roman Empire. As Paul Strathern explains in his masterful narrative history, “The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior,” Borgia was also brilliant, handsome, charismatic and well-versed in the classics, “a superb exemplar of the Renaissance man.”

Borgia is joined in these pages by two other exemplars of the age: Niccolò Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci. Strathern has produced a compact triple biography that focuses on the intersection of these three extraordinary men in late 1502. The trio spent only a few months in close proximity, but the impact on their own lives and on the Renaissance was far-reaching. Strathern, a novelist and author of other popular histories, does for Machiavelli and da Vinci what he does for Borgia: creates a flesh-and-blood portrait for each that defies historical stereotype. Using his novelist's eye and a historian's sweep, Strathern conveys the emotional subtleties that animated their lives. It's no small feat that he makes you care deeply for these complex figures who lived half a millennium ago.

More here.

A Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning

Our own PD Smith in The Independent:

ScreenHunter_08 Jan. 31 10.08 This year the Royal Society celebrates its 350th birthday. The “Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge” was founded on 28 November 1660, when a dozen “ingenious and curious gentlemen” met at Gresham College, London, after a lecture by Christopher Wren, the 28-year-old Professor of Astronomy, and decided to found “a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning.” Among the signatories of that historic memorandum were Wren, chemist Robert Boyle, clergyman and polymath John Wilkins, Sir Robert Moray, and mathematician William, Viscount Brouncker.

Today it is the longest-lived scientific society in the world and this superb collection of essays, extensively illustrated, is a fitting tribute. It has had 8,200 members, including Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Ernest Rutherford and Francis Crick: people who radically transformed the way we see the world. As Bill Bryson rightly says, “this isn't just the most venerable learned society in the world, it is the finest club.”

There had been earlier scientific societies such as Prince Federico Cesi's Academy of Linceans in Italy. But the Royal Society is without doubt the most influential. In 1665 it began the tradition of publishing scientific research. Its Philosophical Transactions is the oldest scientific journal in continuous publication. From the outset, under its German-born editor Henry Oldenburg, the journal was truly international, as was the Society itself. As Bryson puts it, the Society “created modern science”. The original members gathered on Wednesday afternoons in Gresham College where they would observe experiments – conducted by Robert Hooke – and engage in debates. “They loved to talk”, says James Gleick in his essay on their limitless curiosity. Anything could be discussed apart from God or politics.

More here.

Howard Zinn, a radical treasure

Bob Herbert in the New York Times:

Howard-zin Think of those who joined in — and in many cases became leaders of — the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the feminist revolution, the gay rights movement, and so on.

Think of what this country would have been like if those ordinary people had never bothered to fight and sometimes die for what they believed in. Mr. Zinn refers to them as “the people who have given this country whatever liberty and democracy we have.”

Our tendency is to give these true American heroes short shrift, just as we gave Howard Zinn short shrift. In the nitwit era that we’re living through now, it’s fashionable, for example, to bad-mouth labor unions and feminists even as workers throughout the land are treated like so much trash and the culture is so riddled with sexism that most people don’t even notice it. (There’s a restaurant chain called “Hooters,” for crying out loud.)

I always wondered why Howard Zinn was considered a radical. (He called himself a radical.) He was an unbelievably decent man who felt obliged to challenge injustice and unfairness wherever he found it. What was so radical about believing that workers should get a fair shake on the job, that corporations have too much power over our lives and much too much influence with the government, that wars are so murderously destructive that alternatives to warfare should be found, that blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities should have the same rights as whites, that the interests of powerful political leaders and corporate elites are not the same as those of ordinary people who are struggling from week to week to make ends meet?

More here.

Be free! Or I’ll kill you

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad in Pulse:

ScreenHunter_07 Jan. 31 09.40 Some strands of feminism have a long history of serving as adjuncts of Western imperialism. Today they also enable domestic prejudice. Gore Vidal once mocked George Bush’s idea of democracy promotion as being synonymous with: ‘Be free! Or I’ll kill you’. In a similar vein, some feminists today want to ‘liberate’ Arab-Muslim women by constraining their freedoms. These women can’t possibly know what they really want, you see. The European feminists, like Bush, know what’s best for them. What could my sister — who studied at a co-ed university (in Peshawar!) but turned to wearing the hijab after moving to Canada — know about her interests? She must be told by the enlightened Westerner. She must be liberated.

Ignorance and racism combine in this potent form of messianism to sanction prejudice which increasingly targets Europe’s immigrant population. Like the Orientalists of yore, this brand of feminism insists on seeing the brown or black woman in the subordinate role, wistfully awaiting a Westerner liberator. They are childlike, they must be protected in the same manner that a responsible parent protects an unruly nestling. They must be saved from the hijab, or — God forbid! — the veil. To protect their freedom of choice, their freedom to choose must be revoked.

Today more and more assertive Muslim women living in the West are taking up the hijab, as a defiant assertion of their identity and independence. It is no longer a religious symbol, it is a political symbol.

More here.

Meis on Rye: Is it really any surprise Holden Caulfield’s not the hero he once was?

Our own Morgan Meis, six months ago, in The Smart Set:

ScreenHunter_06 Jan. 30 22.02 I'm for the kids. It’s crazy not to be. Are you, dear reader, mighty Atlas, going to hold the world in place and keep it from changing into something new? One lesson of all hitherto existing human history is that the kids have the advantage in the long run. This is a function of time and finitude. The only real wisdom comes in realizing that the kids of today will get their comeuppance with the swift passing of a decade or so. They, too, will wake up one day to find themselves representatives of what was, instead of what shall be. The kids keep on coming.

We learned recently (from a New York Times article by Jennifer Schuessler) that Holden Caulfield, the anti-hero of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, has lost his appeal among the teenage crowd. This came without fair warning. No pimply representative of the Millennials stepped forward to cushion the blow. Instead, we are informed by Barbara Feinberg — “who has observed numerous class discussions of 'Catcher'” — that a 15-year-old boy from Long Island has said, “Oh, we all hated Holden in my class. We just wanted to tell him, ‘Shut up and take your Prozac.’”

It is easy to respond defensively and with contempt. People don't like to have their heroes snubbed, especially when the snubbing comes from some little punk from Long Island whose fingers are surely rubbed raw from constant tweeting, texting, gaming, and masturbation. We (shall we define 'we' as that part of the population over 30?) find subtle ways to undercut the legions of cheeky hormone machines.

More here.

Don’t ever tell anybody anything


“Don’t ever tell anybody anything,” J.D. Salinger wrote in the closing lines of “The Catcher in the Rye.” “If you do, you start missing everybody.” For more than two decades now, I’ve thought about that ending as a piece of code. Not that Salinger, who died Wednesday at age 91 in Cornish, N.H., was an oracle, despite what his most dedicated followers — those who hung around his driveway, hoping for a glimpse of the reclusive author, or parsed his sentences on a million websites — might believe. But Salinger was a writer who refracted his perspective into language, producing work that was personal and profound. Between 1951 and 1965, he produced four uncommonly sensitive books of fiction — “Catcher,” “Nine Stories,” “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” — before retreating to his home in Cornish and refusing to publish any more.

more from David L. Ulin at the LA Times here.

the way we learn


In the four rigorously reasonable essays in “The Marketplace of Ideas,” Louis Menand takes up four questions about American higher education: “Why is it so hard to institute a general education curriculum? Why did the humanities disciplines undergo a crisis of legitimation? Why has ‘interdisciplinarity’ become a magic word? And why do professors all tend to have the same politics?” Menand, a professor of English at Harvard and a staff writer for The New Yorker, offers answers notable in part for what they don’t contain: namely, the complaint that it’s all been downhill since 1970 because of feminism, multiculturalism, postmodernism, deconstruction and queer theory. Yes, humanities enrollments have declined since 1970, as have enrollments in the social and natural sciences. But as Menand points out, that’s partly because departments of business administration and computer science have drawn students away from all fields in the liberal arts and sciences and partly because the decades following World War II were anomalous in the history of American higher education — a “Golden Age” of tremendous expansion, when the number of undergraduates increased fivefold and the number of graduate students ninefold. To assess the American university by starting from 1970 is to take the high-­water mark as if it were the mean.

more from Michael Bérubé at the NYT here.

Saturday Poem

Ae Fond Kiss

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;

Ae fareweel, and then forever!

Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee,

Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee.

Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,

While the star of hope she leaves him?

Me, nae cheerfu' twinkle lights me;

Dark despair around benights me.

I'll ne'er blame my partial fancy,

Naething could resist my Nancy;

But to see her was to love her;

Love but her, and love forever.

Had we never lov'd sae kindly,

Had we never lov'd sae blindly,

Never met—or never parted—

We had ne'er been broken-hearted.

Fare thee weel, thou first and fairest!

Fare thee weel, thou best and dearest!

Thine be ilka joy and treasure,

Peace. enjoyment, love, and pleasure!

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;

Ae fareweel, alas, forever!

Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee,

Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee!

by Robert Burns

Don’t Objectify Him: Tino Sehgal at the Guggenheim

From Culture.wnyc.org

Tino Walk into the Guggenheim between now and March 10th and you will find it empty. There are no paintings on the walls, no sculptures in the rotunda or multimedia installations that require dim lights and headphones. What you will find instead are people – several dozen of them scattered along the bare, spiraling ramp of the museum – ready to engage in chatty, cerebral dialogue about what we, the viewer, consider progress – among myriad other topics. Welcome to “This is Progress,” a work by Tino Sehgal, a London-born conceptual artist who produces only ephemeral performances that he refers to as “situations.” Insert Jersey Shore joke here. Sehgal allows no documentation of his work (no photos, video, or audio), nor does he allow the creation of any objects related to it. There is no wall text, no certificates, no hernia-inducing catalogues loaded with artspeak. In fact, when I showed up for the press preview, there was no speechifying by curators and no press releases (all museum shows should be this awesome) – just the experience of walking into an empty museum wondering what exactly I was in for.

Accompanying me was Susanna Heller, a Brooklyn-based painter – and, coincidentally, a Guggenheim Fellow – who responded to a call by WNYC to be part of this highly unusual experience. (Since the only existing record of Sehgal’s work are the people who experience it, we thought it’d be prudent to take back-up.) So what did we see and do? As we ascended the ramp, we were greeted by a young girl (about 8, missing front teeth, seriously cute), who asked us to follow her. Soon, she was peppering us with all manner of grown-up questions: What is progress? What does progress mean to us? Could we provide examples to support our answers? As we spoke, we strolled slowly up the ramp and were deposited in the hands of a young man in his late teens, where we continued the discussion on somewhat more adult terms. As we continued up the ramp, we were relayed to another performer and another. On some occasions, the questions we were asked were in keeping with the theme of progress; in others, they came completely out of left field. We discussed painting, man's relationship to nature and tried to understand why humans venerate the objects they do. Trying to recount all the details here is like trying to reconstruct a particularly intense dinner party conversation: It was fascinating while it happened, but on the retelling can seem trite and pretentious.

By the time we reached the top of the museum’s ramp, we’d had some pretty intense dialogues – with complete strangers – about ideas, society and ourselves. I didn’t want it to end. Neither did Susanna. In fact, as soon as we finished, we went right back down and did it again and had a completely different set of equally intriguing discussions.

More here. (Note: Thanks to Asad Raza, Producer of the show)

The Night Belongs to Us

From The New York Times:

The downtown rocker Patti Smith’s memoir of her early career and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe is a spellbinding, diverting portrait of funky-but-chic New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s.Patti

Apart from a certain shared apprehension of immortality — complacent in one case, but endearingly gingerly in the other — the skinny 28-year-old on the cover of Patti Smith’s seismic 1975 album, “Horses,” doesn’t look much at all like Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein. But because the shutterbug was Robert Mapplethorpe, who was soon to become fairly legendary himself, that exquisite photograph of Smith on the brink of fame is as close as New York’s 1970s avant-garde ever came to a comparable twofer. The mythmaking bonus is that the latter-day duo were much more genuinely kindred spirits.

Born weeks apart in 1946, Smith and Mapple­thorpe played Mutt and Jeff from their first meeting in 1967 through his death from AIDS more than 20 years later. They were lovers as well until he came out of the closet with more anguish than anyone familiar with his bold later career as gay sexuality’s answer to Mathew Brady (and Jesse Helms’s N.E.A. nemesis) is likely to find credible. Yet his Catholic upbringing had been conservative enough that he and Smith had to fake being married for his parents’ sake during their liaison.

More here.

A Short History of Hydrogen Sulfide: From the sewers of Paris to physiological messenger

Roger P. Smith in American Scientist:

ScreenHunter_04 Jan. 30 11.39 Early last year, reports began to emerge in the Southeastern United States of a strange illness. Homeowners reported nosebleeds, sinus irritation and respiratory problems that appeared to be associated with corrosion of copper pipes and air conditioner coils in their houses.

The culprit seems to be drywall imported from China and possibly contaminated with strontium sulfide, an unstable salt that releases hydrogen sulfide on exposure to moisture. It was used widely in the housing boom of 2004–2007, and in the rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when domestic suppliers could not keep up with the demand. The Consumer Products Safety Commission is now investigating whether sulfide gases given off by the drywall, including hydrogen sulfide, are to blame. The Florida Department of Health maintains a Web site with information for consumers. Lawsuits abound, and many who are able to do so have moved out of their homes. Several estimates place the number of affected houses at 100,000.

To those experiencing or investigating this phenomenon early on, it seemed bizarre. But in fact, this is just the latest chapter in the history of a chemical whose effects were first noted in the 16th century. And there is still more to learn about its role in the human body. Recent research offers insights into its biochemical actions as well as some intriguing suggestions for medical uses.

In 1713, a remarkable Italian physician named Bernardino Ramazzini published De Morbis Artificum, or Diseases of Workers. In Chapter 14, titled “Diseases of Cleaners of Privies and Cesspits,” he describes a painful inflammation of the eyes which was common among such workers. The inflammation often led to secondary bacterial invasion, and sometimes to total blindness. Displaying amazing insight, Ramazzini hypothesized that when the cleaners disturbed the excrement in the course of their work, an unknown volatile acid was produced, which was irritating to the eyes. It was also at least partially responsible for the odor of excrement, and it is now known to be generated wherever organic matter undergoes putrefaction.

Ramazzini further postulated that that same acid was causing copper and silver coins which the workers had in their pockets to turn black on their surfaces—an eerie resonance with the phenomena recently observed by U.S. homeowners.

More here.

The Froth of Khan

Nadeem F. Paracha in Dawn:

Imran Khan What can one say about Imran Khan? A great former cricketer, a compassionate philanthropist … a sorry excuse for a politician. But his continuing forays into bad politics and tactical blunders can be excused, for he is yet to understand that politics is not a game of cricket, and that the democratic election process does not follow the selection policy he enforced as the captain of the Pakistan cricket squad.

The truth is, Khan’s penchant for picking up talented players seemed to have gone haywire when he decided to pick his early political mentors.

Coming from a highly educated, cultivated, and somewhat liberal background, Khan had slipped into reverse gear by the time he decided to enter politics in the early 1990s. In other words, instead of looking forward to becoming an integral part of a new, democratic, and General Zia-less Pakistan, Khan struck an ideological partnership with shadowy characters who were hell-bent on keeping the country stuck in the 1980s – a decade when Pakistan pulled and damaged all of its important political, economic and social muscles under the stressful weight of a myopic dictatorship and the damaging jihad that a dictatorship sponsored in Afghanistan.

By the time Khan officially entered politics sometime in late 1995, it wasn’t his pristine education at Oxford University, or a more insightful understanding of Pakistan’s political history, that was informing his political make-up. On the contrary, his ideology was weaved from the usual reactionary claptrap one expects from former ISI men, especially those who got emotionally involved in Pakistan’s counterproductive Afghan jihad project.

More here.

Mencken, Islam, and Political Correctness

Edward Cline in Capitalism Magazine:

HLMencken Two months after the John Scopes monkey trial of July 1925, H.L. Mencken, writing for the Baltimore Evening Sun, took to task two prominent publications, the New York World and the New Republic, for castigating Clarence Darrow, chief defense counsel of Scopes, over his conduct during the trial. The World was infuriated by Darrows brutal cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan, the states star counsel against Scopes, an experience which humiliated Bryan and is thought to have contributed to his death later that same month. The New Republic objected to Darrow having made the issue of evolution vs. the Bible a national, rather than merely a local one, even though the trial was broadcast on radio.

What drew Mencken's ire was the Worlds position that one's religious beliefs, should be respected and not subjected to criticism or satire.

Once more I find myself unable to follow the best Liberal thought. What the Worlds contention amounts to, at bottom, is simply the doctrine that a man engaged in combat with superstition should be very polite to superstition. This, I fear, is nonsense. The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame.True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force.

More here. [Thanks to Markella Hatziano.]

In Memory of Howard Zinn, an American and a Jew

Rsz_howardzinnMichael Furman in Jewcy:

A close friend called me today and notified me of Howard Zinn's death. After a half hour of the requisite investigatory quest through the digital abyss, the news seemed to coalesce in my mind with the myriad headlines of the day. The modern information onslaught indeed seems malleable to me, over time becoming little more than a monstrosity of factoids. How the whole has become less than the sum of its parts.

Over tea and thought, however, my knowledge of the good professor's passing became quite real, substantive, and sobering. After all, Zinn remains among my biggest inspirations.

As a student of history, he shattered the myth of objectivity with a forceful blow, displaying in a massive tome the hollow nature of facts; it is instead our perspectives, our manipulations, and our conclusions that smack of bias and are deeply flawed. While we all know the adage that ‘history books are written by the winners,' Zinn overwhelmed us with the sheer tragedy of this mantra, and exposed the ugly underbelly of our collective memory.

As an American, he upheld the virtues of the Declaration of Independence, even if he admonished its author.