An Interview with Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm: The Syrian Revolution and the Role of the Intellectual


Over at The Republic:

As opposed to many leftists and Marxists in Syria today and in the world, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm’s position is clear and unequivocal in its support for the Syrian revolution. What are the roots of this leftist ambiguity towards the revolution? And what consequence will this have for the future of the left in Syria?

Due to the nature of this question, I will begin briefly with an introduction about myself. Many ask me if the popular Intifada in Syria against the tyrannical regime, its corrupt government, surprised me or not. My answer is yes and no at the same time. Yes, I was surprised by the timing of the outbreak of the Intifada, with a lot of apprehensiveness at the beginning due to the possibility of quick repression, which I knew was a possibility due to the institutionalized rigidity of the security apparatus in Syria, as well as its repressive ferocity, penetration of the pores of the Syrian body, and its continuous control of nearly all its movements. This reality constituted a type of inferiority complex (in me and in others) due to my impotence in the face of this military regime’s overall power, as well as due to the impossibility of pronouncing a possible “no” against it (individually or collectively). I dealt with this inferiority complex by adapting slowly to this stressful tyrannical reality, and through the careful introspection of the rules and principles of interacting with it, with all that’s required of hypocrisy and pretending to believe and accept, secrecy, word manipulation and circumvention of the regime’s brute force. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to either continue with my normal life and do my routine work and daily errands, or preserve my mental and physical health.

So, why would I not align with this overwhelming popular revolution against this form of tyranny and oppression, regardless of the nature of the convictions that I hold whether they be leftist, Marxist, moderate, or even right-wing?

Bangladesh Needs Strong Unions, Not Outside Pressure


In the wake of the building collapse in Bangladesh, Fazle Hasan Abed in the NYT [h/t: Meghant Sudan]:

I appreciate the unease a Westerner might feel knowing that the clothes on his or her back were stitched together by people working long hours in dangerous conditions. It is natural that people in richer countries are now asking how they can put pressure on Bangladesh and its manufacturers to improve the country’s dismal safety record.

But ceasing the purchase of Bangladeshi-manufactured goods, as some have suggested, would not be the compassionate course of action. Economic opportunities from the garment industry have played an important role in making social change possible in my country, with about three million women now working in the garment sector. I have dedicated my life to alleviating entrenched poverty, and I know that boycotting brands that do business in Bangladesh might only further impoverish those who most need to put food on their tables, since the foreign brands would simply take their manufacturing contracts to other countries.

The rise of manufacturing here has had good effects. In the past, for example, a poor family’s vision for a newborn daughter’s future was often to marry her off as young as possible, since the dowry paid to a husband’s family grows as a daughter gets older. Even after the dowry was outlawed in 1980, the practice continued. A girl would often be married off as young as 13, and would never leave her village, never know a brighter future for herself or her children.

Partly because many women and their daughters now take garment industry jobs — even in factories where workers’ rights are virtually nonexistent — families living in poverty have changed their vision of the future.

Daniel Dennett’s new book: “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking”

Jennifer Schuessler in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_173 Apr. 30 14.51The new book, largely adapted from previous writings, is also a lively primer on the radical answers Mr. Dennett has elaborated to the big questions in his nearly five decades in philosophy, delivered to a popular audience in books like “Consciousness Explained”(1991), “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” (1995) and “Freedom Evolves.”

The mind? A collection of computerlike information processes, which happen to take place in carbon-based rather than silicon-based hardware.

The self? Simply a “center of narrative gravity,” a convenient fiction that allows us to integrate various neuronal data streams.

The elusive subjective conscious experience — the redness of red, the painfulness of pain — that philosophers call qualia? Sheer illusion.

Human beings, Mr. Dennett said, quoting a favorite pop philosopher, Dilbert, are “moist robots.”

“I’m a robot, and you’re a robot, but that doesn’t make us any less dignified or wonderful or lovable or responsible for our actions,” he said. “Why does our dignity depend on our being scientifically inexplicable?”

More here.

The Terror of Capitalism

Vijay Prashad in CounterPunch:

On Wednesday, April 24, a day after Bangladeshi authorities asked the owners to evacuate their garment factory that employed almost three thousand workers, the building collapsed. The building, Rana Plaza, located in the Dhaka suburb of Savar, produced garments for the commodity chain that stretches from the cotton fields of South Asia through Bangladesh’s machines and workers to the retail houses in the Atlantic world. Famous name brands were stitched here, as are clothes that hang on the satanic shelves of Wal-Mart. Rescue workers were able to save two thousand people as of this writing, with confirmation that over three hundred are dead. The numbers for the latter are fated to rise. It is well worth mentioning that the death toll in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City of 1911 was one hundred and forty six. The death toll here is already twice that. This “accident” comes five months (November 24, 2012) after the Tazreen garment factory fire that killed at least one hundred and twelve workers.

The list of “accidents” is long and painful. In April 2005, a garment factory in Savar collapsed, killing seventy-five workers. In February 2006, another factory collapsed in Dhaka, killing eighteen. In June 2010, a building collapsed in Dhaka, killing twenty-five. These are the “factories” of twenty-first century globalization – poorly built shelters for a production process geared toward long working days, third rate machines, and workers whose own lives are submitted to the imperatives of just-in-time production.

More here.

Why All This Maternal Sympathy for Dzhokhar?

Hanna Rosin in Slate:

TT_130426_JURIS_CITIZEN.jpg.CROP.rectangle2-mediumsmallIn the past week and a half I have not been to a school pickup, birthday, book party, or dinner where one of my mom friends has not said some version of “I feel sorry for that poor kid.” This group includes mothers of infants and grandmothers and generally pretty reasonable intelligent types, including one who is an expert on Middle Eastern extremist groups.

Many of them mention that ubiquitous photo of Dzhokhar with his hair tousled and too few hairs on his chin to shave. Some bring up the prom photo with the red carnation or the goofy video of him wrestling with his friends.* Some mention the “I love you, bro” tweets from his many friends. Some just seem anguished by the vision of that “poor kid” alone in the boat by himself, bleeding for all those hours. All of this sympathy stems of course from the storyline that coalesced early: a hapless genial pothead being coerced into killing by his sadistic older brother. As with such storylines, all evidence to the contrary gets suppressed.

Probably the correct moral response to this misplaced maternal sympathy is the one mySlate colleague had, which is to say: “People, please. Cut that shit out. He's an adult and a mass-murderer.” There is evidence that he was not just a pot smoker but a dealer, and also like his brother, he was a fan of jihad. Also the photos of him at the actual bombing site are not so heartwarming, as they show him surveying the crowd he is about to blow up.

More here.

Eat, drink, write

Suman Bolar in Himal Southasian:

Eat%20drink%20write%20illustrationWhen I tell people that I write about food, I unfailingly receive one of three responses (and sometimes, all three): a) “Oh! You’re a food critic”; b) “You’re so lucky!”; and c) “You’re a foodie! So am I!”
Wrong on all three counts.

First, I am a food writer, not a food critic. Food is meant to nourish and enrich our lives; it exists for our sustenance and pleasure. Food is perfect in and of itself and does not need to be criticised. Cooks, chefs, and restaurants – now those are a different matter entirely. So restaurant critic, yes; food critic, no. Second, I am not 'lucky'. Like any other professional, I have worked hard and spent big to be able to do what I do – I have travelled the world and sampled various cuisines on my own dime, spent time and money tracking down interesting foodstuffs and experiences, attended writing and food-related classes and workshops, and often gone out on a limb with an unpopular opinion and paid the price for my candour. And last, you may be a 'foodie', but I am not. In fact, I don’t even know what that means. Does it mean you’re addicted to food, like a druggie is addicted to drugs? Or does it mean you are a trained cook, in the same way that a techie is trained to work with technology? Or wait! Could it mean that you eat a lot of food? In which case, 'glutton' would probably be a better word to use. If, however, you enjoy trying different kinds of food and learning as much as you can about every aspect of whatever you are eating – if you are, shall we say, hungry to develop an intimate knowledge of everything you consume – then you, like me, are an epicure. Call yourself one.

And now that I have that off my chest: Yes, I love what I do.

More here.

Variations on a Gene, and Tools to Find Them

From The New York Times:

CANCERS were once named strictly for the tissue where they originated in the breast, prostate or other part of the body. Now, in the age of genetically informed medicine, cancers may also come with a more specific lexicon: the names of mutated genes deep within tumors that cause cells to become cancerous. Most of these gene flaws — there are scores of them, and they have names like BRAF V600E — are relative newcomers to medical terminology, as are most of the anticancer drugs, still in early testing, that are aimed at them. Development of the new drugs has been spurred by the falling cost of decoding DNA and the prospects of premium prices for drugs that specifically attack the molecular drivers of cancer. Even medical oncologists can be daunted by the complexity of these genes and the therapies intended to fight them, said Dr. William Pao, a physician and scientist at Vanderbilt University who studies cancer mutations in addition to seeing patients. “There are so many genes and so many mutations,” he said. “The human brain can’t memorize all those permutations.”

To guide doctors and their patients, many tools are on the market, including one created by Dr. Pao and colleagues: the Web site My Cancer Genome. The site, which started two years ago, is maintained by 51 contributors from 20 institutions. It lists mutations in different types of cancer, as well as drug therapies that may or may not be of benefit. Most of the drugs are in clinical trials; a few have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The typical user of this information is an oncologist, Dr. Pao said. At the Web site, the doctor can select “melanoma” and “BRAF,” for instance, or “lung cancer” and “BRAF,” and see all types of mutations in the BRAF gene that occur in those instances. The doctor can then check for national and international drug trials aimed at these alterations. Different treatments may work in different molecular subsets of cancer, depending on the mutation. More than 700 oncology drugs are now in development, many aimed at DNA defects, Dr. Pao said, “and the number will only accelerate.” “We are moving away from the tissue of origin to the molecular basis of the cancer, using the mutation to search for a treatment,” he said.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Self Introduction

I am an old man, short and bald
For over half a century
I have spent my life grappling with words:
nouns, verbs, postpositional particles, question marks and the like
Now I rather prefer silence

I do not dislike mechanical tools
Though I love trees, too, including shrubs
I am not good at remembering their names
I am somewhat indifferent to dates in the past
I harbor antipathy against so-called authority

I am cross-eyed, astigmatic and presbyopic
My house has no Buddhist altar or Shinto shrine, but
I have a gigantic mail box that connects directly to my room
Sleep is a sort of pleasure for me
If I dream, I do not remember it when I awake

All the above are facts, but
once I put them down in words like this, somehow they do not ring true
I have two independent children and four grandchildren, do not keep a cat or a dog
In summer I am in T-shirts most of the time
A price may be paid for the words I write

by Shuntaro Tanikawa
from Watashi (I Myself)
publisher, Shichosha, Tokyo, 2007
translation, 2011, Takako Lento
from The Art of Being Alone: Poems 1952-2009
publisher, Cornell Univ. East Asia Program, 2011

The Folly of Perpetual Victimhood

by Jalees Rehman

Birkenau_gateI grew up in a culture of guilt. One of the defining characteristics of post-war Germany was the “Vergangenheitsbewältigung“, a monstrous German word that describes the attempts to come to terms with the horrors of Nazi-Germany and World War II. How could Germans have abandoned all sense of humanity and decency? Why had millions of German actively or passively engaged in the mass murder of millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, socialists and so many other minorities? This Vergangenheitsbewältigung resulted in a deep-rooted sense of collective shame and guilt, one which transcended the generation which had lived through the war and even engulfed Germans born after the war and Germans with immigrant backgrounds, whose families obviously had no historic link to the atrocious crimes committed in Nazi Germany. We did not feel blameworthy in the sense of having to answer for the Nazi crimes, but we did feel that the burden of history had foisted a responsibility on us. We felt that it was our responsibility to be continuously vigilant, watching for any signs or symptoms indicating a recurrence of right-wing extremism, anti-Semitism, fascism, racism, militarism, nationalism, discrimination or other characteristics of Nazi Germany. Our obsession with collective introspection at times became so excessive that it paralyzed us, such as when we developed a general paranoia of expressing any form of German patriotism, because it might set us on a path to Nazism. Many Germans also had near-hysterical responses to any discussions about genetic engineering, because it evoked haunting memories of Nazi eugenics. But despite these irrational excesses, I think that we Germans greatly benefited from our post-war soul-searching which helped us build a mostly peaceful country – no small feat, considering our past.

Roughly one decade ago, “mirror neurons” were among the hottest items in neuroscience research. These neurons in the brain of an individual were thought to fire upon observing behaviors in other individuals: When I see someone eating a delicious piece of chocolate, my mirror neurons fire and help create a proxy sensation or awareness in my brain that mirror the observed behavior so that I might have some sense of eating the chocolate myself. If this were true, mirror neurons would play a central role in generating a sense of empathy. Newer scientific research has questioned whether “mirror neurons” truly exist, but there is little doubt that our brain has some neurobiological substrate that enables empathy, even if it does not consist of the exact same set of anatomically defined neurons as has been previously suspected. I therefore still like to use the “mirror neurons” metaphor, because it aptly evokes the image of a neurobiological mirror in our mind. I would like to extend that mirror metaphor and also propose that our mind might contain “guilt neurons”, which fire when we observe some degree of resemblance between ourselves and perpetrators of crimes. Part of being immersed in the post-war German tradition of collective guilt and soul-searching is that it endowed me with ultra-sensitive hypothetical “guilt neurons”. When I hear about a tragedy or crime, I not only feel the natural empathy with the victims, but in a reflex-like manner ask the question whether I bear some degree of responsibility – not blame – for this tragedy and crime and how to best work towards preventing it in the future. This “guilt neuron” activity is strongest when I sense that the perpetrator is a member of an in-group that I also belong to, such as crimes being committed by fathers or husbands, by Germans, by scientists or physicians, by Muslims, by people with a South Asian heritage and so forth.

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Jack Kerouac’s Pile of Shit, or St Jack in the Wilderness

By Liam Heneghan

“One should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn.” – Rhinoceros Horn Sutta

“I am Lazarus, come from the dead,/Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all” – T.S. Eliot

Jack Kerouac Sixty-three days after his solitary stay on Desolation Peak, Jack Kerouac came down the mountain leaving behind him a “column of feces about the height and size of a baby.” Though Kerouac may not be everyman – at times he’s jubilant, at times morose, verbose, braggardly, brilliant, invariably drunk, incessantly dissecting, sullen, always writing, experimenting, vagabonding, observing minutely, oedipally strange, holy, obnoxious, and not infrequently full of shit – nonetheless, Jack’s ordinary failure in the wilderness is perhaps a more honest reckoning on the meaning of wilderness for us everyfolk than all the successful accounts written by the hard men of the great American Wilderness tradition.

In the summer of 1956, at the suggestion of beat-poet and Zen Buddhist Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac worked as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in Washington State’s North Cascades. It’s a story he tells in Desolation Angels, a “chapter” of The Duluoz Legend, his sequence of thinly veiled autobiographical novels. Jack went to the mountain with big ambitions. Coming out of the wilderness a couple of months later he left behind that great mound of shit, and the carcass of a murdered mouse, Kerouac’s first kill (“it looked at me with ‘human’ fearful eyes”[1]). But what had Kerouac taken away with him; taken down from the solitude to the cites and to his now famously garrulous writer friends? That is, what was the value of Jack’s time in the wilderness, to him or to us?

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Biological metaphysics?

by Rishidev Chaudhuri

IMMUNE-SYSTEMTo my mind, the most fascinating biological systems lie in the uncanny interstices between the physical and the intentional, between systems that can be understood as purely material objects, in the mould of physics or chemistry, and those that seem to require some notion of self (and other) or intentionality or that use complex regulatory loops to maintain themselves as some sort of consistent entity. For example, how should we make sense of the immune system which, on the one hand, seems obviously physical (and hence avoids the debates associated with consciousness) and yet seems to contain at least a primitive notion of self and other, that maintains representations of and long-term memories about its environment and that seems to regulate in a way that feels teleological (or most easily understood this way). These systems challenge us theoretically partly because they are fiendishly complicated, typically consisting of many interacting parts and levels of interactions. But more than this, these parts and levels of interactions seem to form a consistent whole in a way that, say, a gas in a box doesn't, and in doing so they elude our theoretical frameworks. It's not that we know what a good theoretical description would look like and haven't found it yet1. Instead we seem to lack the right level of general principles of understanding and organization. At some point the principles we use to understand physical bodies (energy, entropy, conservation laws and so on) seem to break down, but the principles that we use to understand other subjects in the world (desires, goals, representation and such) don't yet hold. Thus these are material collections that are simultaneously coherent entities, inextricably embedded in the world and insensible without it. At the risk of sounding like one of those Continental metaphysicians whom physicists are always raising their eyebrows at, much of what is exciting about this realm is that it hints at new metaphysics, new categories of making sense of what a system is, what a meaningfully describable entity is, and so on. And reassuringly, these theoretical projects are anchored in the study of physical systems; this doesn't guarantee truth but does provide a set of constraints that nudge speculation in interesting directions.

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Diego Fazo (aka: Diegokoi). Sensazioni. (Model: Federica Ferragine)

Pencil drawing on paper!!

“… Diego is a self-taught pencil master whose technique has matured. He started out as a tattoo artist, and developed a passion for creating photo-realistic drawings. Inspired by the works of Japanese artists from the Edo period, like Katsushika Hokusai, he captures people’s imaginations with his precise lines and oriental drawing techniques.”

More here and here.

Thanks to Abbas Raza.

Don’t Feed the Trolls

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Just-a-quick-Peak-troll-dolls-32896106-500-332Like most things in life, the Internet is a mixed bag. Sometimes, online discussion is very, very good. And sometimes, online argument can go very badly, and there is a name for those who embrace a deleterious argumentative practice that is made possible by the Internet. We are speaking of the trolls.

Thinking one's way into Internet trolling isn't very difficult. There are news stories, blog postings, and opinion pages. With these, there are comment threads for critical discussion. Sometimes on these threads, there are hundreds or even thousands of comments. Now, when there are many people talking in a room, sometimes the best way to be heard is to raise one's voice. But, alas, there's no volume on the internet. To be sure, there is the practice of writing in ALLCAPS, which is the written equivalent of shouting. But anyone can do that, and on the Internet, all such shouting is rendered equally “loud.” So the only way to be heard on the Internet is to have content that captures the eye of readers, and in a comment thread, few things attract attention better than comments which are rude and abusive. Thus a troll is born.

We should note that Internet trolls come in many shapes and forms. There are some who post unflattering pictures of their exes online, there are others who bully classmates on Facebook, and there are those who intentionally post false information in the midst of natural disasters. We are not talking about these trolls here, but much of what we say will likely be relevant to them. The trolls we are concerned with are those that dominate discussions with overblown objections and personal attacks, who seem immune to criticism, and who thereby derail Internet argument. A further feature of trolls of this kind is that they seem to thrive on the negative reactions they elicit. Responding to them and defending your view causes them to become even more unhinged. It seems that the best thing you can do is simply ignore them.

But here's the trouble. It seems clear that engaging with critics is a good thing. In fact, it is not merely a good thing; it is what one ought to do. This is an old thought, and one exceedingly well-articulated by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, with the observation that “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” The thought is that even if you're right and have excellent reasons to believe so, if you have no reasons that address the other side of an issue, you have no ground to make the comparative judgment that your side is better. The consequence is that those who have critical things to say should be of great interest to us, and we should feel deeply obligated to take up with them. That's a really important reason for why argument matters – even if you're right in a disagreement, you need the grounds for preferring your own side, which requires knowing the other.

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Heidegger and the Reluctant American

by Leanne Ogasawara

The-Witness-Humayuns-Tomb-Delhi (1)In the wake of the bombings in Boston, Katie Roiphe's post at slate caught my attention. She says:

Those obsessively poring over emerging news about the Boston bombers should take a break from their iPhones and laptops and newspapers and read Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, (and see Mira Nair’s film version out later this week). The novel will go further in answering the general bewilderment about the Tsarnaev brothers than the little snippets of their lives we have so far, in answering the bigger mystery: “Why did young men who grew up and studied here, as part of our communities and our country, resort to such violence?” as Obama put it.

The comments to the piece are pretty disturbing and say more about things here than anything else. No, it isn't anything about the immigrant experience, but rather is something inherent to Islam, they say in the comments. But were these young men politized or involved with fundamentalist fanatics? Or were they (at least one of them) mentally ill– end of story? We just don't know yet, do we?

However, I do think Roiphe makes a good point about identity issues and how cruel and damaging they can be.

In 2000, the conservative critic and Tokyo University professor Susumu Nichibe wrote a book about Japanese virtue and national morality, in which he strongly discouraged teaching a foreign language to Japanese children before they had mastered their own language. I didn't agree with much of anything in his book including that piece of advice (!!), but his description of how bilingualism in languages as different as Japanese and English can cause something which he called cultural schizophrenia stuck in my mind.

I think anyone who speaks two unrelated languages at a high level of fluency will agree that they quite simply think different thoughts depending on the language in which they are thinking at any given time. This is part of the huge attraction, of course, in learning a second language and living overseas–since that experience opens up for a person all kinds of new possibilities: new ways of thinking, new ways of looking at the world, new behaviors, and new ways of understanding the world. It is tremendously expanding.

Japanese is something that has added an indescribable richness to my own inner life and often affords me two very different perspectives on things. At the same time, however, it can be a strain.

The constant cultural comparisons and negotiating back and forth between worldviews can make a person feel the are never wholly at home anywhere. There are also power issues that can generate feelings of humiliation and shame–such as brilliantly portrayed in Hamid's novel. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is at base a novel documenting what it feels like to be between worlds, specifically where one is not in the privileged position (a Pakistani in post 9-11 America).

Maybe unbelievable to me was that the character was only meant to have lived in America four years. Though on second thought, that seemed to be the most common period when people experience nervous breakdowns resulting from culture shock–within the first five years. And, just as Roiphe suggested, what is really interesting about the story is just how so wildly successful by American standards the character was in terms of the “American dream.”

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Little Brothers, Total Noise and Trickster

by Misha Lepetic

“At the end of the day, someone is going to be right.”
~Brian Williams, NBC Anchor

NEW-YORK-POST-bag_menBecause terrorism in the United States is an (astonishingly) infrequent phenomenon, the April 15 bombing of the Boston Marathon demands of us to make “sense” of it. But at the same time, it is this infrequency that tempts us to draw grandiose conclusions about What It All Means and How Everything Is Different Now. This species of sensemaking should be considered distinct from, say, the kind that goes on in societies that are frequently targeted. Within the context of Pakistan's 652 bombings in 2012, Rafia Zakaria considers a primary purpose of journalism to be the enactment of “rituals of caring, made so repetitious by the sheer frequency of terror attacks; …in preventing the normalization of violence and senseless evil, they keep a society human.” Mercifully, this is not the case here. We probably have the luxury of a few months until the next attack, so let us ponder what the Boston Marathon bombings “want” to tell us.

Were we offered a weary reminder of the racism that always seems to be lurking just below the surface of American society? Indeed. Further proof of Americans' abiding ignorance of geography? Check. A prime opportunity for yet another efflorescence of conspiracy theorists? Yawn. Please tell us something new.

Actually, in the case of Boston, conspiracy theory is a pretty good place to begin. The deepest conceptual failure of conspiracy, as an ontological mode, is its presupposition of a larger, unifying order. Since a benevolent conspiracy is not a conspiracy but really just a miracle – and a conspiracy that is indifferent to us is, by definition, impossible to discern – the fact that conspiracies are also evil is entirely redundant. The goal of identifying (and then wallowing in) a conspiracy, is not so much about the subsequent pursuit of justice, as it is about the reassurance that the world is not chaotic; that however you might detest its presence and seek to escape its influence, there is a deliberate design.

The problem is originary: we are sensemaking creatures. In this light, conspiracy is only our most extreme indulgence of that bedrock behavior. The only thing better than every thing meaning something, is if the meaning of every thing belongs to the same something. But confronted with the immediacy of the Boston bombings, the need to quickly interpret – or, more accurately, create – some kind of meaning is difficult to resist, and technologies, old and new, for better or worse, stood ready to lend a perhaps dubious hand.

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Andrew Sullivan Gives the Brothers Tsarnaev Too Much Credit

by Zujaja Tauqeer

Andrew-sullivan-why-i-blog-wideOver on his blog, Andrew Sullivan has been pondering the motives behind the horrific Boston bombing. His conclusion: Of Course It Was Jihad.

After reading all of his posts, I reached a different conclusion: by calling this act of terror “jihad”, Sullivan is imbuing Tamerlan Tsarnaev with too much representational power over Islam and giving Tsarnaev too much credit by accepting his (unsaid) claims of carrying out actual Islamic injunctions.

Sullivan maintains that Tamerlan was so far gone in his religiosity that one must conclude that his primary motive for acting was religion. Unlike the Obama administration, Sullivan doesn’t conclude that the religious sanction was all in Tamerlan’s head. He cites Rod Dreher, from The American Conservative, who notes that Muslims like Tsarnaev, when they kill, are sometimes carrying out Allah and the Prophet Muhammad's (pbuh) orders, such that Islam, when taken to its logical extreme, is a spur for violent expression. Islam’s violent and fundamentalist strains derive from the fact that it is a religion whose founder practiced violence. According to Sullivan there are concrete reasons why Muslims exhibit a unique proclivity to violence, post-18th century—modernity has exacerbated the inability of extremely religious Muslim loners to find meaning. Hence, killing of civilians.

Playing up Tsarnaev as a staunch, observant Muslim is made possible solely because of Sullivan’s claim that Tamerlan was acting in obedience to actual religious teachings. While there is in fact ample proof to the contrary in the history and scripture of Islam, Sullivan chooses to ignore that mountain of evidence. Instead he wants us to take the word of a 19th century Roman Catholic, Alexis de Tocqueville, for Tamerlan's jihadism. When it comes to talking about Islam, Sullivan sets aside customary rigor in investigating claims or citing sources.

In assigning jihad as the motive, Sullivan makes the ballsy and dangerous move of taking a term of holy war, imbued with much meaning and carrying with it many stipulations, and grants it just like that to the Tsarnaevs. Terming this act “jihad” is a grave mistake because it grants moral legitimacy to terrorism and accepts the rhetoric of terrorists that their acts are in fact exactly the kind of holy acts they say they are. This argument is nothing new. But I maintain that to describe the Brothers Tsarnaev as jihadis and simultaneously invest them with a reputation as devout Muslims, even though they were in fact acting in direct contravention to Islamic teachings, leads to the offensive and fallacious conclusion that a murderer is a model of what Muslims in their full devoutness would be. It gives undeserved power to the most egregiously insincere and disobedient Muslims who cause suffering to innocents to define the meaning of this religion.

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Prose Poem

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

IMG_0273Dear Partitioned Dead

I write to you of folding, tucking, burying side by side. The silk you worried the centuries into being, has arrived; bolts of it. But when we opened the trunks, all we saw was a smooth tongue: Urdu's cascade, a shimmer in ruins. We had to snap shut and lock your decorous viscera, counting only what sells in the market.

Most days, it is over fifty degrees; memories steal away easily. Guards in their fat stupor don't notice them your side of the border.

Pakistan— land of the thirsty, land of skipped beats: half an oscillation, an unfinished verse. India throbs behind us: Its many drums, torn kites and squalor. To both, dust returns again and again, the powdered ghost of goodbye the British viceroy's last plane.

I write to you of a crazed goat leaping across the stretch of No Man's land— no larger than a cricket pitch. A cawing here, a rustling there; the air weighed down by cannons. Another goat, its ears shaking as it grazes under a dwarf tree, will be the first to hear warplanes.

Miles and miles of rice paddies on both sides of the border, roofed by rancor; Hindu gods bathed in milk on one side, on the other, terraces where we wait for the green-domed country carved for us. I write to you of the armor you forgot to pack, the missing tools. Your silk, dear dead, is a rheumatic sleep fingering a new tangle of history.

Trees please, with fruit

by Quinn O'Neill

Keukenhof2Seattle residents have a brilliant plan in the works. They're building America's largest “food forest”. It's going to be a 7-acre plot with hundreds of edible plants, including walnut and chestnut trees; blueberry and raspberry bushes; fruit trees, including apple and pear trees; pineapple, yuzu citrus, guava, and persimmons; honeyberries and lingonberries; and herbs. According to this report, “All will be available for public plucking to anyone who wanders into the city's first food forest.”

I think this is a fantastic idea. Why haven't we been doing this everywhere?

The potential benefits are innumerable. The most obvious perk might be aesthetic, but lush blossoming trees and greenery are more than just eye candy. Exposure to vegetation also has benefits for mental health, reducing anxiety and improving mood. Memory gains and improvements in mood as a result of nature walks have even been reported in adults suffering from major depressive disorders.

The mechanism underlying the mental boost isn't clear. Neighborhood greenery could encourage people to spend more time outdoors, more time engaged in physical activity, and more time mixing socially with other community members. These factors probably play a role, but they don't tell the whole story. Even looking at photos of vegetation can help to focus attention and reduce mental fatigue and stress compared to looking at similar photos with no vegetation.

Of course, Seattle's food park isn't just about greenery, since much of its botanical offerings will be edible. Given the prevalence of obesity, poverty, and food deserts in the US, we might also expect some improvement in physical health as a result of better nutrition. The park's fruit and berries may not be adequate to steadily supply community members, but this might not be so important. Just encouraging experimentation with novel food items – particularly the more exotic ones – can inspire people to buy them when they go grocery shopping. Shoppers encountering persimmons or guavas for the first time might be deterred by the unknown: Do you have to peel them? Can you eat the seeds? Do they need to be cooked first? With park visitors inadvertently offering free demonstrations of how to eat the foods, overcoming these knowledge barriers would literally be a walk in the park.

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