a world without islam


One of the sadder consequences of the near decade of war and violence that has followed the attacks of 9/11 is that so many people are convinced that we are in a clash of civilizations divided along religious fault lines. The concept was popularized by Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington in the mid-1990s, but he didn’t invent the idea; he gave it a name. Until 9/11, however, it was both debated and debatable. Since then, it has become a mainstream view in both the Western world and the Muslim world. The recent furor over the proposed Muslim center in Lower Manhattan, the rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric in Europe and the continued attraction of radical antinomian Islam in parts of the Muslim world attest to this situation. But Graham Fuller offers a forceful, erudite reminder that neither Islam nor religious fervor adequately explains the animosity between parts of the Muslim world and the United States. In fact, he posits that the fissures that currently exist might well have existed even if Islam never had, and he offers a wide-ranging, at times digressive but always illuminating look at the past centuries to support that contention.

more from Zachary Karabell at the LAT here.

He was a pagan, and a Dionysian pagan


In December of 1874, when Serge ­Diaghilev was 2 years old, he stood in the drawing room of his home in St. Petersburg, belly thrust out, and took in the spectacle of the family Christmas tree. He “gravely inspected the tree with its glittering lights,” his stepmother recalled in her memoirs, “glanced at the toys placed around it and said quietly, ‘Not bad. . . .’ ” Thirty-eight years later, at the premiere of the Nijinsky ballet “Le Sacre du Prin­temps,” a riot broke out at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. As Stravinsky’s dissonant score pulsed, as the dancers of the Ballets Russes darted and scuttered, whispers in the audience gave way to agitated shouts and screams. Stravinsky himself, according to one account, “dashed out like a madman.” At a restaurant afterward, celebrating with his collaborators, a contented Diaghilev declared, “Exactly what I wanted.”

more from Jennifer B. McDonald at the NYT here.

On Edward Said

Michael Wood in LRB:

Said If you had asked me a month ago I would have said I didn’t believe in heroes. I realise now that there have been people in my life – Edward, the above-mentioned Fred Dupee, my Cambridge teacher and friend Peter Stern, and my father – who represented ideal forms of what a person could be. They were, variously, models of intelligence, persistence, courage, delicacy, honour, depth of argument, decency, kindness, much else. One can speak to such models mentally even though they are dead, and one can imagine their responses. One can write sentences, even books, for them, and benefit from the memory of the risk and rigour of their thought. But there is still something desolate about their absence from the world. For one thing, they won’t make new arguments or comments; for another, no one younger will get to know them, learn of the exemplary possibilities these people proposed.

Edward was a dapper dresser, and he liked people to pay attention to such things – for their own sake, and because he liked the idea of style. I think perhaps the first conversation we ever had – this would have been some time in the autumn of 1964, I had just arrived at Columbia and Edward had started there the year before – was about a smart jacket (or jackets) he had bought downtown, maybe at Barney’s but probably somewhere posher. He insisted I go and get one of these items because the price was so fantastic, and he asked me every day whether I’d been yet. I didn’t need (and couldn’t afford) a jacket, but I couldn’t withstand the force of Edward’s solicitude, and finally went and bought one. Black. Cashmere. Very nice. I wore it for ages. Edward’s affection enveloped you like a roar, like a cure – even when he became the one who was ill. You felt better every time you saw him. Or rather, you felt you could be better than you were, and you thought the world was a larger place than it had seemed before.

More here. (Note: This post is also in honor of Professor Edward Said's seventh death anniversary today)

New Birth of Freedom

From The New York Times:

Cooper-popup Human rights have come to dominate international discourse, but while this fact is often portrayed as the culmination of a centuries-old tradition, Samuel Moyn, a professor of history at Columbia University, takes a different view. The modern concept of human rights, he says in “The Last Utopia,” differs radically from older claims of rights, like those that arose out of the American and French Revolutions. According to Moyn, human rights in their current form — applicable to all and internationally protected — can be traced not to the Enlightenment, nor to the humanitarian impulses of the 19th century nor to the impact of the Holocaust after World War II. Instead, he sees them as dating from the 1970s, exemplified by President Jimmy Carter’s effort to make human rights a pillar of United States foreign policy.

Today’s human rights movement emerged “seemingly from nowhere,” Moyn says, as a depoliticized, moral response to disillusionment with revolutionary political projects, specifically the anticolonial independence struggles of the 1950s and ’60s. Moyn credibly juxtaposes the hopes placed in a new internationalist “utopia” of human rights against the failure of national self-determination to guarantee human dignity.

More here.

Saturday Poem


The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

–Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn't tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

by Elizabeth Bishop

Edward W. Said

As my eye fell on the calendar this morning, I thought immediately of Edward Said. It is seven years to the day since his death. I dug out from under a stack of books H. Aram Veeser's Edward Said: The Charisma of Criticism (where I am sorry to say, Aram, it had been languishing due to an unusual busyness in my life lately) and started reading it, and found myself predictably saddened by the thought that he really is irreplaceable: no one has emerged since Edward's death with even a remote chance of occupying his colossal role as a public intellectual, as an academic engaged with the world, as the most eloquent voice of his people. Here is an excerpt from the book:

ScreenHunter_02 Sep. 25 12.11 Said felt he had to transform every situation he entered. Any less would be passivity, and he was phobic about letting things happen to him: it smacked of victimage. It was customary at this epoch for radical students to liberate college classes. The professor of a liberated class was expected to stand aside and accept the verdict of History. I don’t think anyone tried this on Said, who had once used his umbrella to brush aside two friends of mine, who were kissing on the Hamilton Hall stairwell. On one occasion I recall, he addressed the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, who were very big on liberating classrooms and even whole buildings. Students, visiting radicals, Harlem residents, and street people had pressed into Hewitt Lounge, in the student center. Imagine a group who had the political moderation of Robespierre and the sartorial verve of the Hell’s Angels, and you’ll have a pretty fair grasp of the scene. Several of my fellow “Freshman Cabalists” affirmed that Said was indeed expected to speak, and pretty soon he arrived.

What followed was a series of tiny collisions and Gestalt readjustments. He was, for instance, punctilious in his dress: a black cashmere blazer over a bespoke, wide-striped English tailored shirt. French cuffs were a rarity in our group, and he had them. As he entered Hewitt Lounge, a ripple went through the assembled company, and the person speaking—who happened to be the society heiress and declared radical action freak, Josie Biddle Duke—interrupted herself and announced that Said had arrived.

More here. And you can read a review of the book here. And see also remembrances of Edward Said at 3QD by Akeel Bilgrami here and Asad Raza here. My own post on the first anniversary of Edward's death is here, and contains links to tributes by many others.

Can explosions move faster than the speed of light?

Ethan Siegel in Starts With A Bang:

Every once in a while, a star in our own galaxy can do something to surprise us. Over in the constellation of the Unicorn lived a quiet, run-of-the-mill star named V838 Monocerotis. But in early 2002, it brightened incredibly rapidly, and the before-and-after pictures were rather astonishing.


What was initially thought to be a nova turned out to be much, much more fascinating by time the Hubble Space telescope got around to looking at it in May of 2002.

Warning: what you're about to see may shock you!


More here.

Eat Pray Love: Julia Roberts’s interminable spiritual journey

Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_01 Sep. 25 11.01 Sit, watch, groan. Yawn, fidget, stretch. Eat Snickers, pray for end of dire film about Julia Roberts's emotional growth, love the fact it can't last for ever. Wince, daydream, frown. Resent script, resent acting, resent dinky tripartite structure. Grit teeth, clench fists, focus on plot. Troubled traveller Julia finds fulfilment through exotic foreign cuisine, exotic foreign religion, sex with exotic foreign Javier Bardem. Film patronises Italians, Indians, Indonesians. Julia finds spirituality, rejects rat race, gives Balinese therapist 16 grand to buy house. Balinese therapist is grateful, thankful, humble. Sigh, blink, sniff. Check watch, groan, slump.

Film continues, persists, drags on. Wonder about Julia Roberts's hair, wonder about Julia Roberts's teeth, wonder about permanence of Julia Roberts's reported conversion to Hinduism. Click light-pen on, click light-pen off, click light-pen on. Eat crisps noisily, pray for more crisps, love crisps. Munch, munch, munch. Munch, munch, suddenly stop munching when fellow critic hisses “Sshhh!” Eat crisps by sucking them, pray that this will be quiet, love the salty tang. This, incidentally, makes me plump, heavy, fat. Yet Julia's life-affirming pasta somehow makes her slim, slender, svelte. She is emoting, sobbing, empathising. She has encounters, meetings, learning-experiences. Meets wise old Texan, sweet Indian girl, dynamic Italian-speaking Swede who thinks “Vaffanculo” means “screw you”.

More here.

Lawrence Lessig on the Fair Elections Now Act

From the website of Fix Congress First:

Lessig On Thursday, the House Committee on Administration will take a vote on the Fair Elections Now Act — the bill that we, along with many others, have been pushing for the past two years. The Committee will pass the bill. With a bit of luck, and a lot more pressure, the managers of the bill believe it could have the votes to pass the House as well. If they're right, and if the Speaker allows the bill to come to the floor, then for the first time in a generation, the House will have ratified fundamental and effective campaign finance reform.

This optimism will surprise many of you. As I've travelled to talk about this issue, the overwhelming attitude of people who want better from our government is that our government is incapable of giving us better. The House ratifying Fair Elections would be the first, and best evidence, this skepticism might be wrong. It would also be a testament to the extraordinary work of organizations like Public Campaign and Common Cause (especially the campaign director, David Donnelly), as well as many others, including MoveOn, the Coffee Party, You Street (as in “not K Street”) and many of you. This victory would give American voters an idea worth fighting for. It would be a critical victory, at least if we can gather the final few votes needed in the House. (You can help in that by using our Whip Tool).

But we should recognize that this victory would also be just a first step. I don't believe the Senate will pass this bill this session, which means the fight must begin again in January. So as we've been at this now for almost two years, I wanted to give you a sense of where we are and where we're going. I also want to begin to share with you my own sense of how to get there.

This isn't a short letter. But I hope you'll take the time to read it. (Here's a PDF if you want to print it). We all need to understand the kind of fight this will be. And after many sleepless nights thinking it through, I believe I have a sense of what victory will require.

More here.


From Edge:

Cancer “We misunderstand cancer by making it a noun”, Hillis says. “Instead of saying, 'My house has water', w' say, 'My plumbing is leaking.' Instead of saying, 'I have cance'”, we should say, “I am cancering.' The truth of the matter is we're probably cancering all the time, and our body is checking it in various ways, so we're not cancering out of control. Probably every house has a few leaky faucets, but it doesn't matter much because there are processes that are mitigating that by draining the leaks. Cancer is probably something like that.

“In order to understand what's actually going on, we have to look at the level of the things that are actually happening, and that level is proteomics. Now that we can actually measure that conversation between the parts, we're going to start building up a model that's a cause-and-effect model: This signal causes this to happen, that causes that to happen. Maybe we will not understand to the level of the molecular mechanism but we can have a kind of cause-and-effect picture of the process. More like we do in sociology or economics.”

More here.

Friday Poem

State Witness
As state witness
I told the court
that the ones saying
they had been beaten
had done the beating
in Uzumba.
I have never been
to Uzumba.
They said if I didn’t
say what they told me
I would get more than
broken ribs.
Don’t call me a coward.
One held my hand,
the other held my other hand,
a third crushed a log into my ribs,
a fourth crushed my testicles for good measure.
As state witness
I told the court
that the ones saying
their buttocks had been burnt,
their homes torched
and their wives raped,
were the ones
who had had actually done those
horrible things.

by Mgcini Nyoni
publisher: Poetry International Web; 2010

Superaccurate Clocks Confirm Your Hair Is Aging Faster Than Your Toenails

From Science:

Relativity According to Einstein's theory of relativity, a clock on the floor ought to run very slightly slower than an identical one on top of a step stool because the lower clock nestles deeper into Earth's gravitational field. Now, physicists have demonstrated this effect using two super-accurate clocks and hoisting one several centimeters above the other. It's the first time scientists have used clocks to show that time flies faster for your nose than for your navel. “The demonstration of the gravitational shift by elevating a clock about one foot is quite stunning,” says Daniel Kleppner, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who was not involved in the work. He adds, however, that the demonstration “does not change anyone's view on relativity.”

Einstein realized that time passes at different rates depending on the circumstances. For example, suppose you stand on a train platform with a Rolex on your wrist while a friend wearing an identical watch zooms by in a train. Your friend's watch runs slower than yours simply because he is moving relative to you, Einstein predicted in his theory of special relativity. And according to his theory of general relativity, gravity comes about because massive things like Earth stretch the fabric of space and time. As a result, a clock at lower altitude and, hence, lower gravitational energy, should run slower than one at higher altitude—by about 3 microseconds per year per kilometer of elevation.

More here.

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox


Viewed from a distance, the natural world often presents a vista of sublime, majestic placidity. Yet beneath the foliage and hidden from the distant eye, a vast, unceasing slaughter rages. Wherever there is animal life, predators are stalking, chasing, capturing, killing, and devouring their prey. Agonized suffering and violent death are ubiquitous and continuous. This hidden carnage provided one ground for the philosophical pessimism of Schopenhauer, who contended that “one simple test of the claim that the pleasure in the world outweighs the pain…is to compare the feelings of an animal that is devouring another with those of the animal being devoured.” The continuous, incalculable suffering of animals is also an important though largely neglected element in the traditional theological “problem of evil” ─ the problem of reconciling the existence of evil with the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent god. The suffering of animals is particularly challenging because it is not amenable to the familiar palliative explanations of human suffering. Animals are assumed not to have free will and thus to be unable either to choose evil or deserve to suffer it. Neither are they assumed to have immortal souls; hence there can be no expectation that they will be compensated for their suffering in a celestial afterlife. Nor do they appear to be conspicuously elevated or ennobled by the final suffering they endure in a predator’s jaws. Theologians have had enough trouble explaining to their human flocks why a loving god permits them to suffer; but their labors will not be over even if they are finally able to justify the ways of God to man. For God must answer to animals as well.

more from Jeff McMahan at The Opinionater here.

the origin of kindness

Fox and crow aesop

From Aesop’s fables to those of La Fontaine, talking animals—monkeys, wolves in sheep’s clothing, grasshoppers, ants—have exposed human foibles and vices and occasional virtues. In so doing, they challenge all rigid boundaries between humans and other species as well as the common view of human wrong­­­­­­­doing as “bestial” in nature—a term Erasmus de­clared deeply unfair to animals, given the scale of violence and deceit practiced by human beings. Charles Darwin’s words, near the end of The Descent of Man, might have echoed Erasmus: “I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper . . . as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.”

more from Sissela Bok at The American Scholar here.

grousing in the service of someone else’s nostalgia


In April 1922, D.W. Griffith traveled to London to promote Orphans of the Storm, his epic of the French Revolution. To a skeptical Times interviewer he described the literary origin of his signature contribution to film technique: the “‘break’ in the narrative, a shifting of the story from one group of characters to another group.” As Sergei Eisenstein observed on discovering the exchange, “Griffith arrived at montage through the method of parallel action”—cross-cutting—“and he was led to the idea of parallel action by—Dickens!” Motion Picture Studio, to which the young Alfred Hitchcock was a contributor, thought Griffith’s visit had made plain “for the first time the all-importance of the director to the films for which he is responsible.” Soon after, the Manchester Guardian’s Caroline Lejeune, later part of Hitchcock’s circle, noted the cults that had gathered around certain directors on the basis of a few films “built on the same lines.” Once canonized, she wrote, “every little gleam of beauty is magnified a hundredfold,” and their work, “even in embryo, will be enwrapped in a legend of quality which it would take a very serious blunder to destroy.” Three decades before it was given a name, Lejeune had identified the politique des auteurs by which the young critics of Cahiers du Cinéma made their magazine’s reputation, beginning in 1953 when Jacques Rivette proclaimed “The Genius of Howard Hawks” on the release of his screwball-throwback, Monkey Business.

more from Henry K. Miller at n+1 here.

Bob Woodward book details Obama battles with advisers

Steve Luxenberg in the Washington Post:

ScreenHunter_03 Sep. 24 09.47 Obama is shown at odds with his uniformed military commanders, particularly Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command during the 2009 strategy review and now the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.

Woodward reveals their conflicts through detailed accounts of two dozen closed-door secret strategy sessions and nearly 40 private conversations between Obama and Cabinet officers, key aides and intelligence officials.

Tensions often turned personal. National security adviser James L. Jones privately referred to Obama's political aides as “the water bugs,” the “Politburo,” the “Mafia,” or the “campaign set.” Petraeus, who felt shut out by the new administration, told an aide that he considered the president's senior adviser David Axelrod to be “a complete spin doctor.”

During a flight in May, after a glass of wine, Petraeus told his own staffers that the administration was “[expletive] with the wrong guy.”

More here.

How writers review their critics

Lesley McDowell in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_02 Sep. 23 23.08 Is this really what writers think of critics? That they spend their time typing up vicious reviews of authors because they're jealous, or to defend their friends? Or because it's the closest their talentless, deluded minds can get to literary immortality? The thing is, having been on the “other side” for so long, I know better. I know that the majority of reviews are not personal, and are not written by people who can't master the craft hitting out at those who can.

But you don't have to be a critic to know this. A cursory glance at the majority of broadsheet books pages would show that most reviewers are not “wannabes” – most of them are also published writers. Gone are the days when the critic was in one corner and the author in the other, two different species eyeballing each other before the fight to the finish. It's a strange hybrid, this author-critic creature. I can't think of another art form where the “practitioner” and the critic overlap like this. Where are the dancers who are also dance critics? Where are the playwrights who also write theatre reviews? Where are musicians who critique bands? Only in literature does this overlap occur, although writers, it would seem, would prefer to believe that it doesn't. Writers would prefer to believe that critics are separate, and that their separation means they're the enemy, and out to get them.

The irony is that writers are generally meaner to other writers than critics are. Few critics have anything to gain by penning a bad review. (Writers like to believe Michiko Kakutani achieved the status she has by writing bad reviews of the big boys, but if that were true, we'd all be doing it).

More here.

Scant evidence for a unified mind or an everlasting soul

David Weisman in Seed Magazine:

Asoulism_HS There is a common idea: because the mind seems unified, it really is. Many go only a bit further and call that unified mind a “soul.” This step, from self to soul, is an ancient assumption which now forms a bedrock in many religions: a basis for life after death, for religious morality, and a little god within us, a support for a bigger God outside us.

For the believers in the soul, let’s call them soulists, the soul assumption appears to be only the smallest of steps from the existence of a unified mind. Yet the soul is a claim for which there isn’t any evidence. Today, there isn’t even evidence for that place soulists step off from, the unified mind. Neurology and neuroscience, working unseen over the past century, have eroded these ideas, the soul and the unified mind, down to nothing. Experiences certainly do feel unified, but to accept these feelings as reality is a mistake. Often, the way things feel has nothing to do with how they are.

There are historical parallels. An 18th-century scientist believed a substance called “caloric” made hot materials hot and flowed into colder materials to make them warmer. It seemed to be true, but subsequent investigation showed mechanical vibration equates to heat. Science is littered with similarly discredited theories; the soul is one of them.

The evidence supports another view: Our brains create an illusion of unity and control where there really isn’t any.

More here.

In praise of dead white men

Lindsay Johns in Prospect:

ScreenHunter_01 Sep. 23 18.55 In 2007 a home affairs select committee produced a report about young black boys in the criminal justice system, calling for the department for education and schools to consult with black community groups to make the curriculum more relevant—and to find “content which interests and empowers young black people.” We can safely assume they were not talking about Ovid, Chaucer or Shakespeare.

Sadly, the canon has a serious image problem amongst black people, too. Many see it as the preserve of white public schoolboys, taught in fusty classrooms by doddery Oxbridge tutors. We have been led to see it as whitey’s birthright, not ours. Meanwhile anti-racist educationalists and black community leaders rail against a racist curriculum which does not meet the cultural needs of their students, with some calling for “black schools” in which black culture—rather than an elite white culture—can be taught.

But the literary canon should not be the preserve of any one race. As both a writer of colour and an ardent (but not uncritical) devotee of the canon, I have little time for people who say that black people cannot relate to books written 2,000 years ago by a bunch of dead white guys, or that Maya Angelou is better than Shakespeare. This denies us our shared humanity across racial divides.

More here.