Patricia Cohen in the New York Times:
When the Harvard historian James T. Kloppenberg decided to write about the influences that shaped President Obama’s view of the world, he interviewed the president’s former professors and classmates, combed through his books, essays, and speeches, and even read every article published during the three years Mr. Obama was involved with the Harvard Law Review (“a superb cure for insomnia,” Mr. Kloppenberg said). What he did not do was speak to President Obama.
“He would have had to deny every word,” Mr. Kloppenberg said with a smile. The reason, he explained, is his conclusion that President Obama is a true intellectual — a word that is frequently considered an epithet among populists with a robust suspicion of Ivy League elites.
In New York City last week to give a standing-room-only lecture about his forthcoming intellectual biography, “Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes, and the American Political Tradition,” Mr. Kloppenberg explained that he sees Mr. Obama as a kind of philosopher president, a rare breed that can be found only a handful of times in American history.
“There’s John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Quincy Adams, then Abraham Lincoln and in the 20th century just Woodrow Wilson,” he said.
To Mr. Kloppenberg the philosophy that has guided President Obama most consistently is pragmatism, a uniquely American system of thought developed at the end of the 19th century by William James, John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce.
JÜRGEN HABERMAS in The New York Times:
SINCE the end of August Germany has been roiled by waves of political turmoil over integration, multiculturalism and the role of the “Leitkultur,” or guiding national culture. This discourse is in turn reinforcing trends toward increasing xenophobia among the broader population. These trends have been apparent for many years in studies and survey data that show a quiet but growing hostility to immigrants. Yet it is as though they have only now found a voice: the usual stereotypes are being flushed out of the bars and onto the talk shows, and they are echoed by mainstream politicians who want to capture potential voters who are otherwise drifting off toward the right. Two events have given rise to a mixture of emotions that are no longer easy to locate on the scale from left to right — a book by a board member of Germany’s central bank and a recent speech by the German president.
It all began with the advance release of provocative excerpts from “Germany Does Away With Itself,” a book that argues that the future of Germany is threatened by the wrong kind of immigrants, especially from Muslim countries. In the book, Thilo Sarrazin, a politician from the Social Democratic Party who sat on the Bundesbank board, develops proposals for demographic policies aimed at the Muslim population in Germany. He fuels discrimination against this minority with intelligence research from which he draws false biological conclusions that have gained unusually wide publicity. In sharp contrast to the initial spontaneous objections from major politicians, these theses have gained popular support. One poll found that more than a third of Germans agreed with Mr. Sarrazin’s prognosis that Germany was becoming “naturally more stupid on average” as a result of immigration from Muslim countries.
From The Paris Review:
The Ticking Is the Bomb, the second memoir by nonfiction writer and poet Nick Flynn, describes his experiences with fatherhood, writing, and the Abu Ghraib torture victims, some of whom he met personally.
Going back to the book’s organization, I love how the scenes with the Abu Ghraib victims are juxtaposed with more personal scenes; it doesn’t establish equivalence, but it mixes the intimacies and distances of both in really gripping ways. Is there any one thing that you want readers to take away as far as our connection to the victims is concerned?
With the Abu Ghraib photographs I was never interested in the question of how our soldiers came to torture other human beings, or even in how Dick Cheney came to authorize it. That Dick Cheney is pro-torture surprises no one; he freely admits it. That soldiers do terrible things during wartime should not surprise us. So at some point the book became about the darker impulses we all carry within us, which led me to examine my own darker impulses. The only way to break out of these darker impulses, for me, was to make a human, face-to-face connection with some of the ex-detainees from the photographs. This is always the only way out.
Any notes from your time with them that weren’t in the book, after your having more time and distance to reflect?
I hope that their humanity came through in the pages, how each had internalized what had happened to them in completely different ways. All of us, we laughed a lot during our time together, when we weren’t hearing about atrocities.
At first glance, a sea anemone doesn’t seem much like a human. It’s a creature from the tidal zone, affixed to the rock or coral below, and without most of the anatomical features associated with humankind: It has no arms, legs, ears, eyes, or nose. It almost seems more like a plant than an animal. Anemones don’t even have a brain; instead their nerves form a network distributed throughout the body; each nerve cell can communicate with its neighbors, but no central structure controls the entire organism. But a study published last month shows that anemones share one trait with humans: They, like us, are susceptible to jet lag. Like humans, anemones have a strong circadian rhythm, an activity cycle kept on a roughly 24-hour period by built-in biological clocks.
more from Dave Munger at Seed here.
Magic is an amusing, intellectual art in which what you see collides with what you know, and there’s a sparkling little jolt that makes you gasp or laugh. It’s recreation. Magic is clever and fun. We buy children magic kits in toy stores. When we shop for magic books, we find them shelved among the “games and pastimes.” In Las Vegas production shows, magic occupies the “variety arts” spot as an alternative to trained dogs that dance in tutus—a sorbet to refresh our palates between the important courses of perfect naked bodies. Even Harry Kellar, the “dean” of American stage magicians in the generation that preceded Houdini, declared that a magician should transport his audiences “to fairyland without scaring them with the devil.” This—with one hairstyle or another—has pretty much been the job description ever since. But there was nothing fairyland about Houdini (the subject of a major exhibition that opened recently at the Jewish Museum, in Manhattan, with a handsome catalogue by Brooke Kamin Rapaport). He was made of flesh—taut, handsome, muscular—and never let us forget it. The buttoned-up world devoured pictures of Houdini’s physique as he leaped handcuffed from the bridges we crossed every day. Houdini gleefully defied authority. He would challenge police to throw him naked into a jail cell (always a great photo op, with manacles discreetly covering his privates); his clothes were locked in an adjoining cell. A little later the officers—smugly congratulating themselves on stumping the Great Self-Liberator—would hear the telephone ring. It was Houdini, calling from across town.
more from Teller at Vanity Fair here.
Making a photograph — a snapshot of a passing scene or the staging of a scene as though for posterity — has usually been understood as an act of consciousness, what Henri Cartier-Bresson called a ”decisive moment” of consciousness, but I suggest that it has less to do with consciousness than the unconscious. It has to do with that ”critical part of rapid cognition known as thin-slicing” — ”the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behaviors based on very narrow slices of experience” — those thin slices of experience we call photographs. “Thin-slicing is part of what makes the unconscious so dazzling” — and photographs so haunting and fascinating — “but it’s also what we find most problematic about rapid cognition. How is it possible to gather the necessary information for a sophisticated judgment in such a short time?” — in the blink of the camera’s eye, which seems to think without thinking, to refer to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking?(1)
more from Donald Kuspit at Artnet here.
Barbara Spindel in the Barnes and Noble Review:
Amitava Kumar wears many hats: Vassar College English professor, literary critic, journalist, poet, and novelist. Duke University Press has just published two books by the prolific writer. Nobody Does the Right Thing is a richly textured novel about a Bombay journalist struggling to reconcile his idealism with his desire to write a Bollywood screenplay. A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb is an impassioned critique of the war on terror that focuses on the cases of Hemant Lakhani and Shahawar Matin Siraj, two men that the U.S. government, with the help of paid informants, convicted of plotting acts of terrorism.
Kumar uses the cases of the two men, whom he sees as “accidental terrorists” created by a government desperate for suspects to prosecute, to argue that in the post-9/11 world, “public interest will need to be defined more boldly as the rights that offer protection against the encroachments of a security state.” Our wide-ranging email conversation covered the two books and also touched on Kumar's education in India, the role of politics in art, and the “ground zero mosque” controversy.
B&N Review: I thought I'd begin with A Foreigner. I'm wondering how the idea for the book was born and how you ended up focusing on Lakhani and Siraj. What did you find particularly compelling about their cases?
Amitava Kumar: I had just come out of Home Depot and turned on the car radio. On the news was Hemant Lakhani. His lawyer was saying how no real terrorist would have come to Lakhani. Lakhani was a bungler. And right there, in the parking lot, while loading boxes in my car, I thought I would write a story about it.
From The Economist:
When Barack Obama won the American presidency in 2008 his supporters cheered, cried, hugged—and in many cases logged on to their computers to look at pornography. And, lest Republicans crow about the decadence of their opponents, precisely the obverse happened when their man won in 2004.
That, at least, is the conclusion of a study by Patrick Markey of Villanova University, in Pennsylvania, and his wife Charlotte, who works at Rutgers, in New Jersey. The Markeys were looking for confirmation of a phenomenon called the challenge hypothesis. This suggests that males involved in a competition will experience a rise in testosterone levels if they win, and a fall if they lose.
The challenge hypothesis was first advanced to explain the mating behaviour of monogamous birds. In these species, males’ testosterone levels increase in the spring, to promote aggression against potential rivals. When the time comes for the males to settle down and help tend their young, their testosterone falls, along with their aggressive tendencies.
Something similar has since been found to apply to fish, lizards, ring-tailed lemurs, rhesus monkeys, chimpanzees—and humans. In many of these animals, though, there is a twist. It is not just that testosterone ramps up for breeding and ramps down for nurturing. Rather, its production is sensitive to a male’s success in the breeding competition itself. In men, then, levels of the hormone rise in preparation for a challenge and go up even more if that challenge is successfully completed. Failure, by contrast, causes the level to fall.
The View from East Rock (Day #17,119)
You stand at the helm of East Rock as
Though it were a ship setting sail. Your gaze
Reads the horizon like tea leaves, and,
Suddenly, you feel dwarfed by this ordinary
Sunset as if for the first time in 17,119 days.
Transfixed by the light and the longing,
You follow the ungodly caw-cawing of gulls
Gutting fish on a not-too-distant dock.
In fact, you too are restless tonight.
Or is it “restive?” You wonder about that.
And you remember wondering about
That before, and looking it up, and then
The forgetting. It seems as though forgetting
Should be harder than remembering,
Like running downhill is harder than up.
Instead, all you can track is the wind
Rushing by, carrying leaves like you once
Carried children across Mill River, and
Before that, the silence of fireflies kindling
A path up the mountain that marks our
Once-upon-a-time New Haven. One by one,
Such moments slip like pearls off a strand,
And, as you blink, the strand itself blows by.
By K. Ann Cavanaugh
From Scientific America:
The common industrial chemical bisphenol A (BPA) has been linked to many ills, including reproductive abnormalities, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Much of the evidence for these associations, however, has been drawn from animal or in vitro research and has been somewhat controversial as to its precise implications for human health.
Now, a human study has found strong links between BPA levels and semen quality—and the findings are not looking good, especially for men frequently exposed to the compound on the job.
Researchers studied the urine (where BPA can be measured) and semen of 218 male factory workers in China, some of whom make BPA or put it into other products (such as plastics and epoxy resins that line cans), and the remainder, whose work did not put them in direct contact with the chemical.
Christian Jarrett in the Research Digest blog of the British Psychological Society:
When attempting to change people’s behaviour – for example, encouraging them to eat more healthily or recycle more – a common tactic is to present scientific findings that justify the behaviour change. A problem with this approach, according to recent research by Geoffrey Munro at Towson University in America, is that when people are faced with scientific research that clashes with their personal view, they invoke a range of strategies to discount the findings.
Perhaps the most common of these is to challenge the methodological soundness of the research. However, with newspaper reports and other brief summaries of science findings, that’s often not possible because of lack of detail. In this case, Munro's research suggests that people will often judge that the topic at hand is not amenable to scientific enquiry. What’s more, he’s found that, having come to this conclusion about the specific topic at hand, the sceptic will then generalise their belief about scientific impotence to other topics as well (further detail). Munro says that by embracing the general idea that some topics are beyond the reach of science, such people are able to maintain belief in their own intellectual credibility, rather than feeling that they’ve selectively dismissed unpalatable findings.
The Digest caught up with Professor Munro to ask him, first of all, whether he thinks there are any ways to combat the scientific impotence excuse or reduce the likelihood of it being deployed.
William Dalrymple in the Times Literary Supplement:
In the autumn of 1986, the painter Derek Hill rang out of the blue and invited me to lunch at his club in St James’s. He was then about seventy; I was twenty-one. I was just back from a journey following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, and Derek wanted me to bring to the lunch some of the Mongol roof tiles I had found at Polo’s final destination, Kubla Khan’s summer palace at Xanadu. The lunch, he explained, was for a friend of his who particularly wanted to see them.
That friend turned out to be Bruce Chatwin, and the lunch was one of those encounters that happen only once or twice in a lifetime and that really do change the direction you end up taking. Chatwin, I thought, was simply astounding. As we sat in the panelled dining room, surrounded by whispering pin-striped clubmen, my small fragments of glazed tile were the starting point for a conversational riff that moved from the nomads of Mongolia in the thirteenth century and cantered over the steppes to Timurid Herat, then leapt polymathically to Ibn Battuta, Ibn Khaldun, Sufi sheikhs and the shamans of the Kalahari bushmen; before long we were being told about Taoist sages, Aboriginal “dreaming” pictures and ancient Cycladic sculpture and thence, as coffee came, via Proust and Pascal and Berenson, to Derek’s portraits, and the latter’s story about sharing a railway carriage with Robert Byron who performed a pitch-perfect imitation of Queen Victoria, using the train’s antimacassar as the Queen’s mourning veil.
At the end, Chatwin limped off on crutches to the London Library saying he needed to check some references for his forthcoming book on the Aborigines of Central Australia…
Tom Jacobs in Miller McCune:
As much as we stake our identity on such core beliefs, it’s unlikely we emerged from the womb as little liberals or libertarians. This raises a fundamental question: At what point in our development did such predispositions begin to form, to coalesce and to harden? What is it about our biology and/or psychology that propels us toward a liberal or conservative mindset?
The question has long intrigued social psychologists such as John Jost of New York University. In a 2003 meta-analysis of 50 years of research, he summarizes the overwhelming evidence that political ideologies, “like virtually all other belief systems, are adopted in part because they satisfy various psychological needs.” Jost quickly adds that this “is not to say they are unprincipled, unwarranted, or unresponsive to reason or evidence” — only that the underlying motivation to believe in them emerges from somewhere other than the rational, conscious mind.
“Most of the research literature … suggests that conservatives are more easily threatened, more likely to perceive the world as dangerous, and less trusting in comparison with liberals,” he notes. This is fairly self-evident. If you perceive the world as a threatening place, you’re more likely to cling tightly to those you trust (i.e., your in-group, however you define it), and to warily eye those you don’t.
AS A COLLEGE STUDENT in the mid-1960s, I was assigned an array of books that for the most part were unremarkable and quickly forgotten. Of the few that really captured my interest was one that explored the trial and execution of a young, Jewish couple from New York convicted of conspiring to steal the secrets of the atom bomb. Invitation to an Inquest struck me as a powerful piece of investigative journalism and I told many friends the book was a must read. The authors, Walter and Miriam Schneir, persuasively argued that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were an innocent, progressive couple caught up in an anti-Communist, FBI-inspired witch hunt and that a “pathological liar” and “weirdly twisted creature” named Harry Gold was the government appointed finger man who fabricated a highly unlikely story that put them in the electric chair. Young, impressionable, and unschooled in the nuances of the case, my admiration for the book would remain intact for many years. Of course, I was aware that the guilt or innocence of the Rosenbergs was a controversial and much-debated issue with numerous and knowledgeable advocates on both sides. As time went on, I read other accounts of the case and my confidence in the Schneir thesis began to wane. For example, The Rosenberg File, Ron Radosh and Joyce Milton’s 1983 take on the case, was equally compelling and easily matched the Schneirs’ for solid historical detective work.
more from Allen M. Hornblum at The Fortnightly Review here.
There can be no turning two hundred without regrets. Even so, the element of wistfulness was bound to play an especially large role in the Argentine case. The surprise for me last month, as a yanqui spectator auto-marooned these past few years in Buenos Aires, while I strolled up and down the Avenida 9 de Julio—broadest street in the world, so they say—picking my way through the throngs of Argentines out celebrating the May Revolution of 1810, was that the experience of the bicentenario should look so joyous, as it was later reported to have been in polls of the huge numbers who took part, and that the official commemoration of two centuries of Argentine history should at the same time concentrate on several of the darkest passages in the country’s history. On the occasion of the big parade, fighter jets flew overhead and gauchos rode by on horseback, just as you might expect. But there were also actors depicting militant workers calling for a general strike, to evoke the hundreds cut down by paramilitary gangs in the semana trágica of 1919; a gigantic installation, suspended on guy-wires, of the constitution in flames; a float portraying the Mothers of the Disappeared who campaigned to know their children’s whereabouts during the ruling junta’s frenzy of state terrorism in the late ’70s; and another troupe of actors in business suits tossing funny money to the crowd in much the way—this was the idea—that the Argentina of the 90s had plunged into a delirium, soon punctured, of fictitious prosperity.
more from Benjamin Kunkel at n+1 here.
In January 1765, Mr and Mrs Ricketts, the new tenants of Hinton Manor in Hampshire, “became alarmed by the frequent opening and shutting of doors during the night”, a phenomenon that persisted even after all of the locks had been changed, and which soon came to be augmented by sightings of “a figure in a ‘snuff-coloured’ coat” and by the sounds of disembodied conversation between “a shrill female voice . . . and then two others with deep and manlike tones”. In 1695, the curate of Warblington, dispatched to investigate a haunted building, sensed “something in the room that went about whistling”. In 1879, a lady staying with “some north country cousins . . . at their house in Yorkshire” woke in the night to see “at the foot of the bed a child . . . a little girl with dark hair and a very white face . . .”, her eyes “turned up with a look of entreaty, an almost agonised look”. In 1682 in Spraiton, Devon, a shoelace “was observed (without the assistance of any hand) to come of its own accord out of its shoe and fling itself to the other side of the room”. A maid went to retrieve the thing only to discover that “it strangely clasp’d and curl’d about her . . . like a living eel or serpent”. In 1649, a party of Cromwell’s men, staying in “the Mannor-house of Woodstock”, were tormented by something “treading as they conceived much like a Bear”, which threw “a Glass and great Stones at them . . . and the bones of Horses, and all so violently that the Bed-stead and the Walls were bruised by them”. One hundred and fifty years later, Lord Brougham, reclining in his bath and “enjoying the comfort of the heat”, was confronted by the figure of his oldest friend, recently deceased but sitting, all the same, on a chair beside the tub, “looking calmly” at him.
more from Jonathan Barnes at the TLS here.
Bill McKibben in the New York Review of Books:
Radio receives little critical attention. Of the various methods for communicating ideas and emotions—books, newspapers, visual art, music, film, television, the Web—radio may be the least discussed, debated, understood. This is likely because it serves largely as a transmission device, a way to take other art forms (songs, sermons) and spread them out into the world. Its other uses can be fairly pedestrian too: ball games and repetitive, if remarkably effective, right-wing commercial talk radio. Rush Limbaugh is the radio ratings champ; according to the industry’s trade journal he reaches 14.25 million listeners in an average week. Sean Hannity, working the same turf, trails him slightly.
But an equally large audience turns to the part of the dial where public radio in its various forms can be found. Public radio claims at least 5 percent of the radio market. National Public Radio’s flagship news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, featuring news and commentary alongside in-depth reports and stories that can stretch over twenty minutes—are the second- and third-most-popular radio programs in the country, each drawing about 13 million unique listeners in the course of the week. These NPR shows have far larger audiences than the news on cable television; indeed, all four television broadcast networks combined only draw twice as large an audience for their evening newscasts.
John Allen Paulos in the New York Times:
Half a century ago the British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow bemoaned the estrangement of what he termed the “two cultures” in modern society — the literary and the scientific. These days, there is some reason to celebrate better communication between these domains, if only because of the increasingly visible salience of scientific ideas. Still a gap remains, and so I’d like here to take an oblique look at a few lesser-known contrasts and divisions between subdomains of the two cultures, specifically those between stories and statistics.
I’ll begin by noting that the notions of probability and statistics are not alien to storytelling. From the earliest of recorded histories there were glimmerings of these concepts, which were reflected in everyday words and stories. Consider the notions of central tendency — average, median, mode, to name a few. They most certainly grew out of workaday activities and led to words such as (in English) “usual,” “typical.” “customary,” “most,” “standard,” “expected,” “normal,” “ordinary,” “medium,” “commonplace,” “so-so,” and so on. The same is true about the notions of statistical variation — standard deviation, variance, and the like. Words such as “unusual,” “peculiar,” “strange,” “original,” “extreme,” “special,” “unlike,” “deviant,” “dissimilar” and “different” come to mind. It is hard to imagine even prehistoric humans not possessing some sort of rudimentary idea of the typical or of the unusual. Any situation or entity — storms, animals, rocks — that recurred again and again would, it seems, lead naturally to these notions. These and other fundamentally scientific concepts have in one way or another been embedded in the very idea of what a story is — an event distinctive enough to merit retelling — from cave paintings to “Gilgamesh” to “The Canterbury Tales,” onward.