The consolations of understanding

From The Economist:

Aris THE unexamined life is not worth living, or so Socrates famously told the jury at his trial. He neglected to mention that the examined life is sometimes not all that wonderful either. In 11 biographical sketches of thinkers who tried to tread in Socrates’s footsteps, plus one on Socrates himself, James Miller explores what it means to follow the philosophical calling. Much trouble and uncertainty seems to be the answer, and some of the most famous philosophers turn out not to be all that admirable or convincing, he finds. So can philosophy inspire a way of life? That is one question raised by Mr Miller, who teaches politics and liberal studies at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Fortunately, Mr Miller does not press that question too hard. Any attempt to draw an all-encompassing moral from the lives he examines would have distorted the stories he has to tell. What we get instead is a vivid set of philosophical tales that are notable for their judicious use of sources, including rare early works. The result is a fresh treatment of subjects who are often served up stale. Even Immanuel Kant, whose writings were justly described by Heinrich Heine, a poet, as having “the grey dry style of a paper bag”, emerges as human.

More here.

Babylon Revisited: When the money runs out

From The Telegraph:

FScott_1813988b Today, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald may be one of America’s most celebrated novelists, but during his lifetime, he was best known as a writer of short stories. At the end of the Twenties, he was the highest-paid writer in America earning fees of $4,000 per story (about $50,000 today) and published in mainstream magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post. Over 20 years, he wrote almost 200 stories in addition to his four novels, publishing 164 of them in magazines. When Ernest Hemingway first met Fitzgerald, in Paris in 1925, it was within weeks of the publication of The Great Gatsby; Hemingway later wrote that before reading Gatsby, he thought that Fitzgerald “wrote Saturday Evening Post stories that had been readable three years before but I never thought of him as a serious writer”. Gatsby would change all that, of course, so thoroughly that now we may be in danger of forgetting Fitzgerald’s stories. The haste in which he wrote them, in order to pay for the luxurious lifestyle he enjoyed with his wife, Zelda, means that the stories are uneven in quality, but at their best they are among the finest stories in English. And “Babylon Revisited”, a Saturday Evening Post story first published exactly 80 years ago next month – and free inside next Saturday’s edition of the Telegraph – is probably the greatest. A tale of boom and bust, about the debts one has to pay when the party comes to an end, it is a story with particular relevance for the way we live now.

Fitzgerald’s fortunes uncannily mirrored the fortunes of the nation he wrote about: his first novel, This Side of Paradise, became a runaway bestseller in early 1921, just as America entered the boom period that Fitzgerald himself would name the Jazz Age. He and Zelda became celebrities and began living the high life. They were the golden couple of the Twenties, “beautiful and damned”, as the prophetic title of Fitzgerald’s 1922 novel suggested, treated like royalty in America’s burgeoning celebrity culture. Glamorous, reckless and profligate, the Fitzgeralds were spendthrift in every sense. Much later, Fitzgerald would have to take account of all they had squandered – not only wealth, but beauty, youth, health, and even his genius.

More here.

Robert Fisk joins protesters atop a Cairo tank: “It is over.”

Robert Fisk in The Independent:

ScreenHunter_02 Jan. 30 09.11 The Egyptian tanks, the delirious protesters sitting atop them, the flags, the 40,000 protesters weeping and crying and cheering in Freedom Square and praying around them, the Muslim Brotherhood official sitting amid the tank passengers. Should this be compared to the liberation of Bucharest? Climbing on to an American-made battle tank myself, I could only remember those wonderful films of the liberation of Paris. A few hundred metres away, Hosni Mubarak's black-uniformed security police were still firing at demonstrators near the interior ministry. It was a wild, historical victory celebration, Mubarak's own tanks freeing his capital from his own dictatorship.

In the pantomime world of Mubarak himself – and of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in Washington – the man who still claims to be president of Egypt swore in the most preposterous choice of vice-president in an attempt to soften the fury of the protesters – Omar Suleiman, Egypt's chief negotiator with Israel and his senior intelligence officer, a 75-year-old with years of visits to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and four heart attacks to his credit. How this elderly apparatchik might be expected to deal with the anger and joy of liberation of 80 million Egyptians is beyond imagination. When I told the demonstrators on the tank around me the news of Suleiman's appointment, they burst into laughter.

Their crews, in battledress and smiling and in some cases clapping their hands, made no attempt to wipe off the graffiti that the crowds had spray-painted on their tanks. “Mubarak Out – Get Out”, and “Your regime is over, Mubarak” have now been plastered on almost every Egyptian tank on the streets of Cairo. On one of the tanks circling Freedom Square was a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Beltagi. Earlier, I had walked beside a convoy of tanks near the suburb of Garden City as crowds scrambled on to the machines to hand oranges to the crews, applauding them as Egyptian patriots. However crazed Mubarak's choice of vice-president and his gradual appointment of a powerless new government of cronies, the streets of Cairo proved what the United States and EU leaders have simply failed to grasp. It is over.

More here.

Alexandrian Kings

by Constantin P. Cavafy (who was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1863)

The Alexandrians turned out in force
to see Cleopatra’s children,
Kaisarion and his little brothers,
Alexander and Ptolemy, who for the first time
had been taken out to the Gymnasium,
to be proclaimed kings there
before a brilliant array of soldiers.

Alexander: they declared him
king of Armenia, Media, and the Parthians.
Ptolemy: they declared him
king of Cilicia, Syria, and Phoenicia.
Kaisarion was standing in front of the others,
dressed in pink silk,
on his chest a bunch of hyacinths,
his belt a double row of amethysts and sapphires,
his shoes tied with white ribbons
prinked with rose-colored pearls.
They declared him greater than his little brothers,
they declared him King of Kings.

The Alexandrians knew of course
that this was all mere words, all theatre.

But the day was warm and poetic,
the sky a pale blue,
the Alexandrian Gymnasium
a complete artistic triumph,
the courtiers wonderfully sumptuous,
Kaisarion all grace and beauty
(Cleopatra’s son, blood of the Lagids);
and the Alexandrians thronged to the festival
full of enthusiasm, and shouted acclamations
in Greek, and Egyptian, and some in Hebrew,
charmed by the lovely spectacle—
though they knew of course what all this was worth,
what empty words they really were, these kingships.

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

Will Egypt’s Military Officers Free the Revolution?

Michael Wahid Hanna in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_01 Jan. 29 18.09 When armored personnel carriers filled with soldiers began making their way into the heart of Cairo and other cities in Egypt on Friday January 28th, they were greeted with receptivity by protestors, who saw in the much-respected military a potential ally in their uprising against the regime. No doubt, the recent experience in Tunisia, where the military stepped in resoundingly on the side of the demonstrations and hastened the fall of the repressive regime of President Ben Ali, was fresh in their mind. The Tunisian military had intervened against the police forces, burnishing their image as popular heroes who shared the patriotic concerns of the brave Tunisians who defied the regime. The scenes that unfolded in Egypt made clear that the protestors there hoped to force a similar split between the security forces, run by the Ministry of the Interior, and the military.

While Egypt's military is no longer an active fighting force, it still retains more credibility as a public entity than Egypt's civilian institutions, crippled after years of neglect and one-man rule. In recent years, even some democracy activists, despondent from years of state repression and ineffectual organizing, have seen the military as the last hope for Egyptians against Mubarak's efforts to orchestrate his son, Gamal, as successor to the presidency. Now that demonstrators have overwhelmed the police forces and built popular momentum, the military, were it to shift its allegiance from Mubarak to the protesters, could effectively end the regime.

More here.

Mubarak’s Last Breath


Frustration, shame, humiliation: it does not take much for Egyptians to call up these feelings. It’s still often said that ‘what happens in Egypt affects the entire Arab world,’ but nothing much has happened there in years. Egypt has fallen behind Saudi Arabia – not to mention non-Arab countries like Turkey and Iran – in regional leadership. Even tiny Qatar has a more independent foreign policy. Egypt is by far the largest Arab country, with 80 million inhabitants, yet it’s seen by most Arabs – and by the Egyptians themselves – as a client state of the United States and Israel, who depend on Mubarak to ensure regional ‘stability’ in the struggle with the ‘resistance front’ led by Iran. The liberalisation of Egypt’s economy – launched by Sadat’s Infitah (Open Door) policy in 1974 – has earned Mubarak praise from the World Bank. The 2007 constitution, purged of references to socialism, says that ‘the economy of the Arab Republic of Egypt is founded on the development of the spirit of enterprise.’ Yet Egypt’s market is anything but free: businesses tend to have very close, and mutually profitable, relationships with the state, in which the Mubarak family often participates and takes its cut. Hussein Salem, a hotel magnate, arms dealer and co-owner of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Company – an Egyptian-Israeli consortium that recently secured a $2.5 billion contract to sell Egypt’s natural gas to Israel – is thought to be one of Mubarak’s frontmen; the gas began flowing in early 2008, just as Israel was tightening the siege of Gaza.

more from Adam Shatz at the LRB here.

Caught in the web


The internet has come a long way since Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, turned on the first web server in Geneva on Christmas day 1990. Today, 2bn people are online; 800m of them are on Facebook. Every minute, 24 hours worth of video is uploaded to YouTube. Google, a company founded only 15 years ago, has a market capitalisation just short of $200bn and a mission statement that it intends “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – something no one thinks unlikely or even remarkable. We now bank, shop, communicate, work and date through the internet. The internet has come of age. It is as defining an achievement for humanity as the Enlightenment or the industrial revolution. But as the web’s youthful potential and teenage brashness give way to a more grown-up, complicated and multifaceted personality, our reaction to it has also changed. Our enthusiasm is tempered by a realisation that it is not simply an exciting force for good, as it was first seen. This year’s opening salvo of books about the internet does not laud web entrepreneurs or predict jetpacks and digital utopia. Instead, Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion and John Brockman’s collection of essays all soberly assess the current state of the internet and ask: are the changes the internet brings to our society and our human nature actually beneficial?

more from Ben Hammersley at the FT here.

Arundhati Roy: India’s bold and brilliant daughter

From The Guardian:

Arundhati-Roy-007 Arundhati Roy will turn 50 this year. I hope to be excused of sexism (would one write this of a man?) when I say that she looks no more than 35 at most. Her vitality has always been striking. I remember her from one of her early visits to London as a slight, supple woman with an Indian cotton bag slung over her shoulder, and gleaming skin and hair that suggested yoga and aerobics, yoghurt and juice made from fresh limes. My wife had baked scones in her honour. Roy looked at the scones as though they might be deep-fried Mars bars, but eventually and daintily conceded to try one. In her bag was the manuscript of a first novel that was to make her famous and (by the standards of writers) rich, and though some of that future could have been predicted (the manuscript had caused a stir among publishers), no one could have foreseen the Booker prize and editions in 40 languages. What has happened since the success of The God of Small Things is even more surprising. Among Indian public intellectuals, a bright category that includes the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, Roy is probably now her country's most globally famous polemicist, as both a writer and speaker. Her essays are published across the world – the Guardian published a recent one in five parts – and she can pack out a big venue in New York and still have a few thousand listening outside.

In India she draws even bigger crowds, and switches from English to Hindi. She tours extensively, and often to the kind of country towns and small cities that rarely see anyone so celebrated. Recently, she told me, 5,000 tribal people from 34 districts had gathered to hear her at Bhubaneswar in Orissa. Some had walked for days to get there; 40 had been arrested and charged with waging war against the state; two, she believed, had died in jail. “So it isn't like Jaipur,” she said, referring to India's first and largest literary festival, just ended, where well-fed writers are flown in from London and New York and put up in reupholstered palaces.

More here.

A Lion in the Undergrowth

From The New York Times:

Gottlieb-popup The men of old, reported Socrates, saw madness as a gift that provides knowledge or inspiration. “It was when they were mad that the prophetess at Delphi and the priestesses at Dodona achieved so much; . . . when sane they did little or nothing.” Today, insanity can still bring the gift of knowledge, but in a different manner. Much of what we know about the brain comes from seeing what happens when it is damaged, or affected in unusual ways. If the Delphic seer were to turn up tomorrow, neuroscientists would whisk her straight off into a brain scanner.

V. S. Ramachandran, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, San Diego, has done as much as anyone to reveal the workings of the mind through the malfunctions of the brain. We meet some mighty strange malfunctions in his new book, “The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human.” There is a man who, after a head injury, cannot recognize or respond to people when he sees them, but can happily chat on the phone. We meet a woman who laughs when she should be yelping in pain. There are patients with Capgras syndrome, who come to believe that people who are close to them (or, in one case, the patient’s poodle) are imposters. We meet unfortunates with an intense desire to have their own healthy limbs amputated, others who are paralyzed on one side but insist against all evidence that they are not, and, in Cotard’s syndrome, people who sincerely believe they are dead. Ramachandran weaves such tales together to build a picture of the specialized areas of the brain and the pathways between them, drawing his map by relating particular types of damage to their corresponding mental deficits.

More here.

Mubarak’s Defiance Makes Life Harder for Obama

Tony Karon in Time:

ScreenHunter_05 Jan. 29 11.46 Mubarak's interests don't necessarily match America's. He's largely ignored years of pressure from the Obama Administration and its predecessors to introduce reforms aimed at avoiding the sort of scenario he now faces, and in a televised address finally delivered at midnight, local time, Mubarak came out swinging, firing his government and promising to name a new one on Saturday, proclaiming himself an agent of reform and human rights, and declaring that “We will continue our political, economic and social reforms for a free and democratic Egyptian society.” In other words, he wasn't going anywhere. Indeed, Mubarak defended his crackdown, vowing that he would “protect” Egypt from the “anarchy” of the protestors.

The speech was widely derided on the streets, and analysts warned that it was likely to intensify protests. And lest anybody doubt that the White House recognized Mubarak's position as a statement of defiance toward Washington, President Obama announced an hour later that he'd spoken to his Egyptian counterpart after the speech, and had made “very clear” that Mubarak had an obligation to refrain from violence against peaceful protests, to turn the SMS and Internet platforms blocked by his regime back on, and to take “concrete steps” toward real reform. “Ultimately the future of Egypt will be determined by the Egyptian people,” Obama said. “Governments have an obligation to respond to their citizens.” Press Secretary Gibbs put a price tag on further Mubarak misbehavior, warning that the annual $1.3 billion aid package the U.S. sends to Egypt's security forces would be placed under review on the basis of Egypt's handling of the protests.

The Administration is caught in a bind, but it's more strategic than just moral: Supporting tyrants loathed by their own people but willing to do Washington's bidding in international matters is a decades-old U.S. tradition in the Middle East, as well as in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The problem with Mubarak is not simply that his methods are at odds with professed U.S. values; it's that his brittle autocracy appears to have entered a period of terminal decline, with the U.S. potentially on the wrong side of history.

More here.

Egypt’s Military Is Seen as Pivotal in Next Step

Neil MacFarquhar in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_04 Jan. 29 11.30 Even as armored military vehicles deployed around important Egyptian government institutions on Friday for the first time in decades, it remained difficult to predict what role the armed forces might play in either quelling the disturbances or easing President Hosni Mubarak from power.

“Are they on the side of the nation or are they on the side of the regime?” a former senior Western diplomat with long service in Cairo asked. “That distinction had been blurred. We are now seeing a modern test of whether there is a separation between the two.”

The Egyptian military, the world’s 10th largest, is powerful, popular and largely opaque.

The military carried out the 1952 coup that overthrew the monarchy and has considered itself the shepherd of the revolution ever since; all four presidents in the ensuing years have been military generals.

But Mr. Mubarak, who led the Air Force before rising to prominence when President Anwar el-Sadat appointed him vice president in 1975, worked hard to keep the army out of overt politics and under his control.

More here.

Egypt’s military secures famed antiquities museum

From Salon:

ScreenHunter_03 Jan. 29 10.40 The Egyptian army secured Cairo's famed antiquities museum early Saturday, protecting treasures including the famed gold mask of King Tutankhamun from looters.

The greatest threat to the Egyptian Museum first appeared to come from the fire enguling the ruling party headquarters next door on Friday night as anti-government protests roiled the country.

Then dozens of would-be thieves started entering the grounds surrounding the museum.

Suddenly other young men — some armed with truncheons taken from the police — formed a human chain outside the main gates on Tahrir Square in an attempt to protect the collection inside.

“I'm standing here to defend and to protect our national treasure,” said one of the men, Farid Saad, a 40-year-old engineer.

Another man, 26-year-old Ahmed Ibrahim, said it was important to guard the museum because it “has 5,000 years of our history. If they steal it, we'll never find it again.”

Finally, four armored vehicles took up posts outside the massive coral-colored building in downtown Cairo. Soldiers surrounded the building and moved inside to protect mummies, monumental stone statues, ornate royal jewelry and other pharaonic artifacts.

Uprisings: From Tunis to Cairo


Dictators do not usually die in bed. Successful retirement is always a problem for them, and not all solve it. It is a problem for everybody else when they leave. What’s to be done afterward? The popular uprising that overturned the dictatorial Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime in Tunisia in mid-January sent a thrill of hope through Arab populations. Aside from the exceptional and complex case of Lebanon, Arab nations have since the demise of the Ottoman Empire mostly suffered from European quasi empire, their own exploitative military and party dictatorships, and recently, hereditary family dictatorships, a reversion to absolute monarchy in secular guise. The dream of a united independent Arab nation to replace the Ottomans was destroyed by World War I peace settlements, which left the major Arab peoples in European empires as mandated states under the League of Nations. Following World War II and the Suez fiasco, in the cold war setting of the American alliance with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel, the region found itself dominated by Israeli arms and American support for existing regimes. The rise and subsequent failure of Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser’s Arab Socialism in Egypt and Yemen did not interrupt most of the region’s political passivity, and Egypt itself, after the Camp David accords in 1978, became an American client state. This calm was disturbed only by the Iranian popular overthrow of the Shah, communal turbulence in Lebanon, and then the Gulf War and American invasion of Iraq.

more from William Pfaff at the NYRB here.

on egypt


The size and strength of the protests caught everyone by surprise, but a few proximate causes can be suggested, if only to provide some context amidst the onslaught of tweets and updates. The uprising in Tunisia is obviously a significant part of that context. It is true that Tunisia is a small country that plays a minor role on the international stage, while Egypt is a linchpin of regional governance and one of the US’s closest allies. But both regimes are reviled by much of their citizenry as corrupt and brutal gerontocracies. While it still seems unlikely that Mubarak will be toppled, Egyptian protestors can take heart from the fact that six weeks ago no one was predicting a rout of Ben Ali, either. Another remote cause, however limited and difficult to assess, is the release of WikiLeaks documents. A cache of diplomatic cables relating to the Middle East was published in early December by the independent newspaper al-Akhbar, and the leaks have been intensively discussed by Arab bloggers and political activists. Few subjects anger Egyptians more than their regime’s cooperation with Israel, and several leaked documents suggest just how closely the two countries’ diplomats and security forces work together. The cable sent in June 2009 from the US embassy in Tel Aviv, which reveals that Egyptian officials were consulted about Israeli air and land assaults on Gaza the previous winter, must have been especially galling.

more from Robyn Creswell at n+1 here.

is 2011 the next 1989?


I’m guessing that by now most readers of politics related blogs will have had their fill of State of the Union analysis. So I wanted to take this opportunity to shift the conversation to what I think has the opportunity to be the most important political development in 2011, the events that have transpired in Tunisia over the past month. While undoubtedly important for the Tunisian people, the larger question is whether Tunisia could turn out to be the Poland of the Arab world: the first transition away from a regime long thought to be immutable that sets in motion a path of regime change throughout the region. At first glance, this would seem to be extremely unlikely. Prior to Tunisia, it is difficult to remember the last Middle Eastern regime to fall outside of an external invasion (Iran in 1979?). And yet, a quick glance at a Google News search for Tunisia reveals articles linking protests in Tunisia to events in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and even Gabon and Indonesia. As I have previously noted, I know next to nothing about Tunisian politics. I have, however, studied the collapse of Communism in East-Central Europe in 1989 in some detail, and so would like to offer the following observations about what lessons 1989 might have to offer those prognosticating about 2011.

more from Joshua Tucker at The Monkey Cage here.