An Unthinkably Modern Miracle

John Fischer in The Morning News:

Modern-miracle-featureBroadly speaking, I’m a healthy person. I kickbox, I don’t drink much, and I only have a cigarette once in a while. I was never subject to childhood inhalers or Ritalin or even a hospital visit. My blood pressure is great, my eyesight is okay, and I seldom get cavities. So like a dodo bird, ignorant of predators, I saw no cause for concern. Shortly after my physical I booked an appointment with a urologist I found on the internet. He was a cue ball–bald man in his early 50s who asked me a battery of diagnostic questions and then instructed me to pee into a funnel-like machine that measured my “voiding” velocity. With a sound like an old printer, the device spat out a graph of my bodily function reduced to numbers, which my new urologist spent several minutes examining. He nodded as though a suspicion had been confirmed.

To require medical treatment in the 21st century is to enter into a system that has never been truly functional. The mechanics of who provides and who pays for medicine in this country have been under debate since at least the late 1800s, fundamentally inseparable from the larger question of our government’s basic responsibility to its citizens. So unlike, say, sewers or interstate highways, the shape of our medical system has been informed far more by ideological stalemate than by consensus. It’s a fight we revisit every few decades (Franklin Roosevelt and the American Medical Association in the ‘30s, Lyndon Johnson and Medicare in the ‘60s, Hillary Clinton and the Gingrich Republicans in the ‘90s) without ever really concluding. Though its most recent incarnation—President Barack Obama and a bill called the Affordable Care Act—has provoked its own particular mania, it is essentially the same debate, re-tooled for the Internet era. But if our thinking about the who and how of American medicine hasn’t changed much in a century, the system itself most certainly has. Catalyzed by money, technology, and a growing population, it has mushroomed to such size and complexity as to be almost incomprehensible to the person entering into it. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, U.S. medical expenditures will account for about 20 percent of our gross domestic product by 2020. That’s about four times what we currently spend on defense, or social security. Add to it the fact that, according to Health Affairs magazine, as many as 31 million people may remain uninsured even after full deployment of the Affordable Care Act—roughly one out of every 10 people. And then there are the labyrinthine financial calculations that dictate which procedures are covered by insurance and what pharmaceuticals make it to market and how many channels a hospital TV should display. Furthermore, we can add medical devices, research grants, colonoscopies as expensive as cars, drug reps paying for golf junkets, and so on. Like poverty or climate change, medicine in this country has grown well beyond our abilities to fully understand it, much less manage it.

More here.

Goodbye Happiness

Richard Williams in The Guardian:

French-novelist-Francoise-011She took the title from a poem by Paul Éluard and her nom de plume from Proust. Years later, Brigid Brophy would declare that she wrote with “a pen saturated in French literature”. But 60 years ago , the publication of a first novel by an 18-year-old author had France's literary establishment in uproar. As a slender volume called Bonjour Tristesseflew off the shelves, Françoise Sagan became a scandalous success, the echoes of which would prove impossible to silence. Over the course of a long and eventful career, Sagan would go on to produce 20 novels, three volumes of short stories, nine plays, two biographies and several collections of non-fiction pieces on places, things and people she loved. But so powerful was the impact made by Bonjour Tristesse, and so profound the disturbance it provoked in French society, that it remains easily her best-known work.

This short novel of barely 30,000 words is a story told by Cécile, a 17-year-old girl holidaying on the Côte d'Azur with her widowed father, a roué who has brought along his young girlfriend. The daughter is exploring her own first sentimental adventure, a swiftly consummated romance with a handsome law student, when the unexpected arrival of an older woman, a friend of her late mother, disrupts the self-indulgent haze of high summer. First the newcomer takes charge, ordering Cécile to terminate her romance in order to stay indoors and do her homework. Then she and the father fall in love. To prevent their marriage the daughter devises an ill-fated plot in which the pretence of an affair between her boyfriend and the father's dumped girlfriend is intended to provoke jealousy and restore the status quo ante.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Song of a Frigid Woman, or
Baby it's Cold Inside

Oh Lord, please give me an impotent man.
I enjoy a good hug whenever I can
but celibacy is my ultimate plan,
so give me an impotent man.

He could be taking some strong medication
that dampens his drive, or have some combination
of injury, age, ennui and castration,
just give me an impotent man.

I haven't completely abandoned romance,
I just choose to relate where there isn't the chance
stepping out might involve stepping out of my pants.
Please give me an impotent man.

No thrill in the masculine member I find
since my worn out libido just up and resigned,
but I love intercourse with the masculine mind,
so give me an impotent man.

The truth must be told and the facts must be faced,
no man in his prime or his senses would waste
a moment in chasing the forcibly chaste,
so give me an impotent man.

Oh Lord, please don't send me some lusty young buck
because I'm convinced, with my usual luck,
I'd want conversation and he'd want
to physically express his affection.
Oh give me an impotent man.

by Linda M. Stitt

he Doctor and the Saint: Ambedkar, Gandhi and the Battle Against Caste


Arundhati Roy in Caravan:

ANNIHILATION OF CASTE is the nearly eighty-year-old text of a speech that was never delivered.* When I first read it I felt as though somebody had walked into a dim room and opened the windows. Reading Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar bridges the gap between what most Indians are schooled to believe in and the reality we experience every day of our lives.

My father was a Hindu, a Brahmo. I never met him until I was an adult. I grew up with my mother, in a Syrian Christian family in Ayemenem, a small village in communist-ruled Kerala. And yet all around me were the fissures and cracks of caste. Ayemenem had its own separate “Parayan” church where “Parayan” priests preached to an “untouchable” congregation. Caste was implied in peoples’ names, in the way people referred to each other, in the work they did, in the clothes they wore, in the marriages that were arranged, in the language we spoke. Even so, I never encountered the notion of caste in a single school textbook. Reading Ambedkar alerted me to a gaping hole in our pedagogical universe. Reading him also made it clear why that hole exists and why it will continue to exist until Indian society undergoes radical, revolutionary change.

Revolutions can, and often have, begun with reading.

Ambedkar was a prolific writer. Unfortunately his work, unlike the writings of Gandhi, Nehru or Vivekananda, does not shine out at you from the shelves of libraries and bookshops.

Of his many volumes, Annihilation of Caste is his most radical text. It is not an argument directed at Hindu fundamentalists or extremists, but at those who consider themselves moderate, those whom Ambedkar called “the best of Hindus”—and some academics call “left-wing Hindus.”1 Ambedkar’s point is that to believe in the Hindu shastras and to simultaneously think of oneself as liberal or moderate is a contradiction in terms.

When the text of Annihilation of Caste was published, the man who is often called the “greatest of Hindus”—Mahatma Gandhi—responded to Ambedkar’s provocation. Their debate was not a new one. Both men were their generation’s emissaries of a profound social, political and philosophical conflict that had begun long ago and has still by no means ended.

More here.

Reading “Capital”: Introduction


Over at The Economist's Free Exchange, a book club blogging over the next few weeks of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-first Century:

LAST year Thomas Piketty, an economist at the Paris School of Economics and a renowned expert on global inequality, published a book titled “Capital in the Twenty-first Century”—in French. It will be released in English on March 10th. We reviewed the book earlier this year, but it is detailed and important enough, in our opinion, to deserve additional discussion. We will therefore be publishing a series of posts over the next few weeks—live-blogging the book, as it were—to draw out its arguments at slightly greater length. Starting today, with the book's introduction.

Capital, as I will refer to Mr Piketty's book from here on out, is an incredibly ambitious book. The author has self-consciously put the book forward as a companion to, and perhaps the intellectual equal of, Karl Marx's Capital. Like Marx, Mr Piketty aims to provide a political economy theory of everything. More specifically, he attempts to re-establish distribution as the central issue in economics, and in doing so to reorient our perceptions of the trajectory of growth in the modern economic era. Mr Piketty's great advantage in attempting all this, relative to past peers, is a wealth of data and analysis, compiled by himself and others over the last 15 or so years.

Mr Piketty begins in an introduction that proceeds in two parts. He first describes the intellectual tradition into which the book falls. The second, which is the basic outline of his theory, I will tackle in the next post.

The study of political economy emerged in the first decades of the Industrial Revolution, in the late 18th century, in Britain and France. The great thinkers of the era were attempting to understand the dramatic societal and economic changes of the day and to describe their mechanics in a way that would allow them to anticipate future developments. To a great extent they focused on distributional issues—and worried that distribution spelled serious trouble for the capitalist system. The Reverend Thomas Malthus, for instance, famously worried that overpopulation would drive down wages to subsistence level, leading to dangerous political upheaval. To short-circuit this possibility the compassionate reverend recommended that governments cut off assistance to the poor and limit their reproduction.

David Ricardo's 19th century analysis was more measured but nonetheless similar in its concern about the sustainability of the contemporary economic system. He focused his attention on the relative scarcity of factors of production, and the effect of scarcity on shares of national income. Output and population were rising fast, he noted, while land supplies remained fixed, suggesting that land prices might rise without bound. As a result, he speculated, land rents would come to eat up a steadily rising share of national income, threatening the capitalist system.

Ricardo was wrong in the long run—soaring agricultural productivity (which both he and Malthus failed to anticipate) meant that agricultural land was not the scarce factor for very long. But he was right in the short run, and the short run matters.

More here.

What Killed Egyptian Democracy?


Mohammad Fadel in the Boston Review, with responses from Ellis Goldberg, Nathan J. Brown, Akbar Ganji, Micheline Ishay, Andrew F. March and Anne Norton:

Although the masses in Tahrir Square appeared unified on the day Mubarak fell, three broad groups were vying for power.

The first, associated with the military, took a minimalist view: the Revolution was simply about removing Mubarak and his cronies from power, and ensuring that his son, Gamal Mubarak, did not succeed him to the presidency. Given this group’s desire to preserve as much as possible of Mubarak’s order (without Mubarak), it was able to reconcile with old-regime elements. This first group originally lacked a distinctive ideology, but it eventually adopted a nationalist, sometimes even xenophobic, posture that distinguished it from the cosmopolitanism of Islamist, liberal, and socialist revolutionaries.

According to a second group, the Revolution aimed at broad reforms of the Egyptian state without uprooting it entirely. For this reformist group, the crisis stemmed from corruption. Mubarak, they argued, had undermined the state’s integrity by usurping its institutions to fulfill his and his allies’ personal and political ends. The Revolution needed to reform the state’s institutions so that they would meet the formal requirements of a legal order, accountable to the public will. Formal democracy was a crucial demand of this group because it was seen as the only way to ensure that the state would not again be hijacked to further the interests of a narrow group of Egyptian elites. The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies belonged to this second group.

The third group, composed largely of young Egyptians, understood the Revolution as an attempt to fundamentally restructure state and society. The Revolution provided an opportunity to create a virtuous state. Doing so would, however, require a complete rupture with the ancien regime. This radical group had an ambivalent relationship with formal democracy. Although elections were desirable, the most important goal was the substantive transformation of the state and society. “Revolutionary legitimacy” trumped whatever legitimacy formal representative democracy could provide.

More here.

Memoirs of a German Childhood

0302SUB-bks-Gewen-master180-v2Barry Gewen at The New York Times:

Joachim Fest’s fascinating memoir about what it was like to come of age during the years of the Third Reich is unusual because its central character is not the author but the author’s remarkable father. Johannes Fest was the middle-class headmaster of a primary school in suburban Berlin, a pious Catholic and father of five, a cultural conservative who revered Goethe and Kant, and a loyal German patriot — “a dyed-in-the-wool Prussian,” in Fest’s words — the kind of person who might have been expected to become an active supporter of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists. In a foreword by Herbert Arnold (a professor emeritus of German studies at Wesleyan University who has also supplied informative notes throughout the text), the elder Fest is described as “tailor-made for a career” with the Nazis. And yet some quirk in his personality made him a fierce Weimar republican, ready to sacrifice himself, even his family, to principles he knew to be right even as everyone around him was yielding to mass hysteria. “Not I,” a best seller in Germany when it appeared in 2006, the year of the author’s death at age 79, is a memorable tale of lonely courage, stoic endurance, self-imposed hardship and a life lived amid ubiquitous, all-­encompassing danger: “Even ­innocent-sounding remarks could be life-and-death matters.” It reminds us that simple human decency is possible even in the most trying of ­circumstances.

more here.

Atheism is in trouble, according to Terry Eagleton.

Terry-Eagleton-010Jonathan Rée at The Guardian:

Throughout the 20th century it went from strength to strength, as churches lost their congregations and theology was put to flight by natural science. But then there was 9/11 and everything changed. Traditional churchgoing may have continued its long decline, while the strident scepticism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens still struck a chord with the book-buying classes, but, in the rest of the world, religion was rousing itself from a long slumber. Wild forms of worship – Christian, Islamic or other – have now taken hold of the poor and the oppressed. Religious faith has gone viral.

Or so it seems to Eagleton, and he thinks we should have seen it coming. He is a celebrated practitioner of wide-ranging intellectual commentary, with bestselling books to his credit and acres of polemical journalism. He always seems to have read all the philosophers and theorists that the rest of us find too fearsome, and he has a knack for fitting them neatly into place by means of a well-turned epigram or an alliterative turn of phrase. His prose is alive with dichotomies, insults and laugh-aloud jokes, and at the end we are invariably invited to savour the “irony” as the masterminds are shown losing their mojo as the truth slips out of their grasp. In Culture and the Death of God he deploys all his formidable skills to explain how the high hopes of many generations of secular materialists collapsed along with the twin towers.

more here.

wilfred owens’ war poetry

Bc4f6430-a01b-11e3-9c65-00144feab7deJason Cowley at The Financial Times:

Owen was an unashamed romantic, deeply influenced by Keats, whom he read from an early age, and Shelley. He had little interest in modernist experimentation; much of his verse has a Georgian conventionality. He may not have been a modernist but his war poems remain startlingly modern: urgent, alive with felt experience.

His short, vivid, unsparing poetic recastings of life in the trenches – the senseless slaughter, the suffering, the moments of compassion, the juxtaposition of tenderness and brutality – have helped harden our understanding of the first world war as a futile catastrophe. The many hundreds of thousands of young British men who were killed in the mud of the western front were, indeed, doomed through their participation in a conflict that even today, a century later, we continue to misinterpret and misunderstand.

The last of those who fought in the Great War are dead now but, because of Wilfred Owen and fellow war poets, because of a great novel such as All Quiet on the Western Front and the shattered landscapes of the paintings of Paul Nash, we are fortunate to have imperishable first-hand artistic representations of the horror and the pity of it all.

more here.

Last Call

Robin Marantz Henig in BookForum:

Article00THE DINOSAURS WERE THE LEAST OF IT. They, together with other “charismatic megafauna,” went extinct during a massive global event at the end of the Cretaceous period, sixty-six million years ago—but by then there had already been four other mass extinctions, dating as far back as the Ordovician period, 444 million years ago. And now, according to New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert, we’re heading for another: a sixth extinction, which she characterizes as “the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, [when] we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed.”

…Today, because of the intensity of human activity, environmental changes are happening so quickly that there might not be time for corrective migrations or other adaptation strategies. Over the next century, a temperature swing of roughly the same magnitude as that of the ice ages is projected to occur—but at a speed that’s at least ten times faster than anything the earth has seen before. “To keep up, organisms will have to migrate, or otherwise adapt, at least ten times more quickly,” Kolbert writes. And there’s no evidence that plants and animals will be able to do that. Kolbert does put some faith in the prospect of giant rats being up to the task, but not much else. Short of a world populated by rats the size of elephants—and, in one particularly gruesome image, by human-size hairless rats “living in caves, shaping rocks as primitive tools and wearing the skins of other mammals that they have killed and eaten”—Kolbert doesn’t offer much to look forward to. In her final assessment of where we’re headed—a chapter called “The Thing with Feathers”—she quotes two scientists whose points of view might fairly be called ironic. Anthropologist Richard Leakey, she tells us, said that “Homo sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but also risks being one of its victims.” And ecologist Paul Ehrlich put it even more bluntly. “In pushing other species to extinction,” he wrote, “humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.”

More here.

White Lies

Porochista Khakpour in The New York Times:

BookStrange times, crowed too many wise and unwise men over the millenniums. But as the art critic Jerry Saltz wrote in New York magazine last fall, maybe we’re finally at a point where the strangeness of the times is matched by an ability to accept it. In defending the perplexing Kanye West video “Bound 2,” Saltz heralded this as an age of the New Uncanny. The all-American banal-bizarre spectacle of the video (synthetic sunsets; slow-motion galloping stallions; the nippleless ingénue) is “a freakish act of creation and destruction by appropriation,” what Saltz deems “part of a collective cultural fracturing.” Saltz is riffing on Freud’s description of the uncanny as “nothing new or alien, but something familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” But maybe we’re not as alienated as we once were, something that occurred to me when beholding another unapologetic, all-encompassing contradiction-celebration: the story-allegory and real-surreal gyre of Helen Oyeyemi’s gloriously unsettling new novel, “Boy, Snow, Bird.”

Oyeyemi is from Strange Times. Raised in Britain by Nigerian parents, the 29-year-old five-time novelist isn’t even affiliated with a single home anymore: London, New York, Berlin, Barcelona, Budapest, Prague — who knows where she is doing her thing at any given moment? For years I saw her as something of a literary mystic, reading her with a mixture of awe, confusion and delight, but only now do I feel that we’re at a place where we can properly receive her, and she’s ready for us too. With “Boy, Snow, Bird,” a culmination of a young life spent culling dreamscapes, Oyeyemi’s confidence is palpable — it’s clear that this is the book she’s been waiting for.

More here.

Saturday Poem

Sin in my Seventieth Year

I own,
in varying degrees,
to the seven deadly sins
– and countless others, more trivial,
but now,
in my three score and tenth year,
I confess, above all, to pride.

I am not too proud
for hand-me-downs and handouts
and even, on occasion, helpful advice.

I am not proud of my looks,
– that was long ago,
nor of my accomplishments,
save that I have survived.

I have no pride of possessions,
all are impermanent and mutable,
nor of my intellect which, like my body,
is swiftly succumbing to the indignities of age.

I might take pride in the kind hearts of my children but,
fearing the jealousy of the gods,
I shall keep silent,

But I am proud,
fiercely and joyously proud,
simply of being here,
of existing at this time and place
in the continuum of consciousness,
as witness and participant.

I am proud that I have been summoned by the universe,
to learn its workings,
to serve the great work as lover and beloved.

I am so proud to be a drop in the bucket of totality,
a spark in the blazing glory of creation.

I am proud, beyond measure,
like a freshman at the senior prom,
of having been invited to the dance.

Linda M. Stitt
from Passionate Intensity
Seraphim Editions, 2003

Medical care is now a tool of war

Thanassis Cambanis in The Boston Globe:

Cross_bullet_holesThe medical students disappeared on a run to the Aleppo suburbs. It was 2011, the first year of the Syrian uprising, and they were taking bandages and medicine to communities that had rebelled against the brutal Assad regime. A few days later, the students’ bodies, bruised and broken, were dumped on their parents’ doorsteps.

Dr. Fouad M. Fouad, a surgeon and prominent figure in Syrian public health, knew some of the students who had been killed. And he knew what their deaths meant. The laws of war—in which medical personnel are allowed to treat everybody equally, combatants and civilians from any side—no longer applied in Syria.

“The message was clear: Even taking medicine to civilians in opposition areas was a crime,” he recalled.

As the war accelerated, Syria’s medical system was dragged further into the conflict. Government officials ordered Fouad and his colleagues to withhold treatment from people who supported the opposition, even if they weren’t combatants. The regime canceled polio vaccinations in opposition areas, allowing a preventable disease to take hold. And it wasn’t just the regime: Opposition fighters found doctors and their families a soft target for kidnapping; doctors always had some cash and tended not to have special protection like other wealthy Syrians.

Read the rest here.