by Brooks Riley

Personal experiences of art should not be foisted on others except in small doses, given that words can only provide semantic guideposts to such an experience. That’s why I never wanted to write a companion piece to my earlier one‚ Holding Albrecht. But recently I found myself longing to see Albrecht Dürer’s Paumgartner Altar again, which was nearly destroyed by an acid attack in 1988, removing it from view for over twenty years. After my earlier epiphany at the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich, holding and beholding the Dürer engravings up close in an empty room, with all the time in the world to delight in their intricate wit and daunting craftsmanship, I felt uneasy as I slouched over to the grandiose Alte Pinakothek, shouldering a dread of crowds, dread of the official museum-going experience, dread that my memory of Dürer’s paintings might have let me down.

It was one of those cold spells in May, some of which have names. Not the Eisheiligen of mid-May (five saint days of chill), and too soon for the Schafskälte of early June, this was just a no-name dreary day. I would be visiting old friends, not just the paintings themselves, but also the faces in those paintings. If you live in Germany, you see Dürer’s faces everywhere, the genetic variances of a Volk, still in circulation 500 years later. Just look at Oswolt Krel, a young businessman from Lindau. His eyes have darted to the left, his face a mask of worry over some transaction gone wrong. Is it 1499 or 2008?

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The Pellucid Sound of Rain

by Gautam Pemmaraju

The Bombay monsoon has finally fallen into character, after a destitute June. As I was falling asleep to the sound of heavy rain a few nights ago, my attention was once again momentarily drawn to the dense ecology of sounds that the droplets made as they struck several surfaces. There was the light, wind-swept tympanic percussion on the window pane, there were the lone droplets on the balcony ledge, the corpulent plops upon the leaves of the potted plants in the balcony, and there was the dense tumescent swoosh, the ‘white noise' of the environment, amidst several discrete sounds of varying time and frequency that I could distinguish in a short audition. Perhaps it was no longer that a few minutes. It felt much longer and so it is when we enter these strange, somewhat unsettling meditative states.

Rain sounds are packaged for commercial use as a sleep therapy device and a mood relaxant. White noise machines are commonly found, and used, although their efficacy is a matter of debate. White noise is generally understood to be a noise signal wherein the entire spectrum of frequencies is at the same intensity. Much like a diaphanous acoustic blanket, the signal has a physical consistency—a sort of drone character, so to speak. The ‘colour of sound', or the ‘colour' of a noise signal is an underlying concept here. Just as in music, we are able to describe and attribute ‘tone colour', what is also known as timbre, to a specific sound. In noise, the colour of a signal refers to the attributes of its frequency spectrum, in particular, its power. White noise is analogous to white light, characterized by a ‘flat frequency spectrum' in a narrow range, and in music and acoustics the signal is understood as a hissing sound. The use of a white noise generator or machine, for whatever purpose one may choose, is a process of ‘sound masking' wherein a sound/noise of the immediate environment is mitigated, cloaked, or ‘masked' by the addition of a natural or artificial sound (such as a white or a pink noise). Generally, the intention is to make the environment more acoustically pleasing, more amenable, relaxed, and to ironically, suggest a sense of quietude. So essentially, in order to mitigate, acoustically shadow, or conceal unwanted sounds that annoy or distract us, we employ noise. In many ways and iterations, we are essentially learning to cope with and negotiate noise (and noises), for noise, is ubiquitous. Actually, we seem to be perpetually learning noise.

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Meaning and Dislocation: The Mandelstams in Exile

by Mara Naselli

Osip Mandelstam spent a lifetime moving from one place to another. His family moved often during his childhood; his exile, however, began after he recited to a gathering of friends a poem he had composed in the fall of 1933. The poem mocked Stalin and his totalitarian rule: “He forges decrees like horseshoes—decrees and decrees: / This one gets it in the balls, that one in the forehead, him right between the eyes. Whenever he’s got a victim, he glows like a broadchested / Georgian munching a raspberry.” Osip_Mandelstam_Russian_writer

The following spring, Mandelstam was arrested and his apartment searched. The poem was not found and was probably never written down. After his arrest, Mandelstam went to prison for a time and he and his wife Nadezhda were condemned to move from one place to another. “It has been said that Soviet citizens do not need to build houses for themselves because they have the right to demand a free apartment from the state,” wrote Nadezhda Mandelstam in her memoir Hope Against Hope. “But whom does one demand it from?” Soviet propaganda boasted everyone deserved a place to live, but residency required permission, to which all kinds of coercion could be attached. Nadezhda writes,

Your permit to reside went with your accommodation and if you lost it you could never return to the city you had lived in. For many people their apartments turned out to be real traps. The clouds were already gathering, their friends and colleagues were being picked up one after another, or, as we used to say, the shells were falling nearer and nearer, but the possessors of permanent titles to apartments stayed put for the police to come and get them.

Soviet logic worked in two directions at once. A right to live meant a right to be traced, monitored, interrogated, moved. Nadezhda lived in twelve cities between the time of her husband’s arrest in 1934 and his death in 1938. “Every time we joined all the other people making the rounds of offices to get our bits of paper,” she writes, “we trembled in case we should be unlucky and be forced to move in some unknown direction for reasons not revealed to us.” Osip’s first city of exile was Cherdyn, where he was required to report to a bureaucratic office every three weeks. The reporting, the applications for permits, the constant threat of informants. The state forced on the Mandelstams and countless others a life of dislocation.

No wonder Osip Mandelstam loved Dante. When the police took him to prison in the middle of the night, he brought The Divine Comedy with him. When Nadezhda followed him, months later, she brought another copy in case the first had been lost or confiscated.

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Thinking about Moral Enhancement

by Thomas Rodham Wells

Enhancement is a hot topic in biomedical ethics, though the academic conversation is coloured by a surprisingly strong – even reactionary – conservatism. On the one hand it probably is a good thing to have some critical scrutiny of the techno utopians' claims. On the other hand, should we – can we? – distinguish between good 'treatment' and bad 'enhancement', as Michael Sandel has argued? Is there really a difference between glasses and laser eye surgery apart from semantics? Does the capability to 'hear' non-acoustically constitute some kind of infringement of the human telos? And if so, so what? I sometimes wonder whether these concerns amount to anything more than the insinuation of a conservative vision of the human condition that would be challenged in any other conversation in moral philosophy.

Nonetheless, thinking about enhancement can be fun, and even enlightening. As with good science fiction, imagining changes to the human condition pushes us to look more clearly at what we already have, and how we might use it better. Take moral enhancement. Is it possible to make humans morally better than we are now? What might that look like and are there any dystopian risks to look out for?

‘Morality' seems to comprise three distinct dimensions towards which an enhancement project could be directed: theoretical reason, practical reason, and self-command. It's important to note at the beginning that such a project doesn't depend on science fiction technologies – special IQ pills, brain implants, and so forth might be part of this in the future, but moral enhancement is an ancient project with a long and mixed track record of developing enhancement technologies, including formal education, role-modelling, parenting, physical exercise, religious rituals, nutritional supplements, philosophical 'leisure', judicial punishment, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and so on.

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By Maniza Naqvi

Like, Caesars, seated on couches, now remote controls in hand, watching people on couches watching:

One two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven twelve thirteen fourteen fifteen sixteen seventeen eighteen nineteen twenty twenty one twenty two twenty three twenty four twenty five twenty six twenty seven twenty eight twenty nine thirty thirty one thirty two thirty three thirty four thirty five thirty six thirty seven thirty eight thirty nine forty forty one forty two forty three forty four forty five forty six forty seven forty eight forty nine fifty fifty one fifty two fifty three fifty four fifty five fifty six fifty seven fifty eight fifty nine sixty sixty one sixty two sixty three sixty four sixty five sixty six sixty seven sixty eight sixty nine seventy seventy one seventy two seventy three seventy four seventy five seventy six seventy seven seventy eight seventy nine eighty eight one eighty two eighty three eight four eighty five eighty six eight seven eighty eight eighty nine ninety ninety one ninety two ninety three ninety four ninety five ninety six ninety seven ninety eight ninety nine one hundred.

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Telephonic Love: A Misreading

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

41kiXhcF-uLIn January of 2009, I was browsing through news networks when I came across a headline that read: “Indian call centre employee punished for harassing British woman”. Seeing that I was in the process of writing a dissertation on call centers around that time, my interest was piqued. The article reported that British Telecom (BT) had received a complaint from one of its customers saying that she had been receiving creepy messages from an employee at BT's call center. She had earlier called the customer centre in order to have an engineer sent to install a landline at her house and had subsequently been contacted by the agent who wanted to know where she lived and what she was doing for the day. The agent's name was reported as Hemant; the woman's identity was not disclosed. Hemant was reported to have subsequently begun sending her text messages on her phone, some of which are included in the article.

“Hello, Hemant this side with whom you spoke two hours ago regarding ur BT order. U must be thinking dat why I called u up second time without any reason of the call but to be honest I got attracted towards u and ur wonderful voice. Can I be ur friend?”

“As precious as u r to me, as precious only few can ever be, I know all friends r hard to choose but u r someone I never want to lose. Take care xxx.”

The woman is also reported as having complained: “The messages were inappropriate and very creepy. I felt as if I was being stalked.”

The messages are inappropriate in many ways. They transgress privacy, professionalism, and grammar all in one text. One wonders what manner of desire fuelled this transoceanic burst of sentiment. Did Hemant in his cubicle, attending to one British call after another find a moment of connection in the caller's “wonderful voice”? Did he see this as a way to bring nearer one of the many callers who were to him not even a face, but only a voice? Did she speak kindly to him and chat in a manner that assured him that she was ready and waiting for him to make a move? Was he egged on by colleagues who saw him flirting on the phone with a caller? Was it merely a dare? Did he, in the Lacanian sense, read beyond the phrase-ology of polite customer communication, in itself a complete economy of empty language gestures? Did he fill the emptiness with content of his own and break the symbolic understanding of customer-agent communication?

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An Instance of Guilt

by Carl Pierer

GuiltA key ingredient to the good life seems to be that we, for ourselves, choose our goals and commitments. Indeed, Immanuel Kant goes as far as to claim that this is a necessary prerequisite for actions to have any moral worth at all. Individual Autonomy is widely accepted as an ideal. Kantianism and Consequentialism, two of the major contemporary ethical theories, disagree on many an issue, but this they value equally. However, in a recent paper, Thomas Miles from Boston College used Soren Kierkegaard's criticism of the ethical life and applied it to the concept of individual autonomy. This essay will first reconstruct Kierkegaard's and Miles' four main arguments and second try to demonstrate that the most powerful of those – the guilt trap – presupposes a religious point of view.

Kierkegaard's Either/Or was published pseudonymously under the name of Victor Eremita in 1843. Eremita claims to have found the papers of the book, which are written by four different authors. These writings are by A (the aesthete), Johannes the Seducer, B or Judge William and a Jutland priest. A's papers together with The Seducer's Diary form the first (the aesthetic life view), William's letters together with the priest's sermon the second part (the ethical life view). According to Miles, it is in William's letters that we find one of the most eloquent and sophisticated expositions of an autonomous ethical life. Very roughly, it can be sketched as follows.

“What I have said to you so often I say once more, or rather shout it to you: either/or; aut/aut.” The ethical life is all about choosing. By choosing and committing to a certain path of life, the ethical person takes responsibility for herself. By “choosing oneself”, she accepts her past and will identify with her present and future actions. Accepting something that connects past, present and future events gives herself continuity in time. Since commitment to duty and responsibility for herself, the ultimate aspiration of the ethical life, can be achieved autonomously, she is independent of the world. “Therefore, the truly ethical person has an inner serenity and sense of security, for he does not have duty outside himself but within himself”, Judge William writes. Miles identifies four main arguments against this position in Kierkegaard's authorship. He calls them: the guilt trap, the self-mastery argument, the problem of meaning and the loss of self.

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Hamas’s Chances

Nathan Thrall in the London Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_735 Aug. 03 21.13The current war in Gaza was not one Israel or Hamas sought. But both had no doubt that a new confrontation would come. The 21 November 2012 ceasefire that ended an eight-day-long exchange of Gazan rocket fire and Israeli aerial bombardment was never implemented. It stipulated that all Palestinian factions in Gaza would stop hostilities against Israel, that Israel would end attacks against Gaza by land, sea and air – including the ‘targeting of individuals’ (assassinations, typically by drone-fired missile) – and that the closure of Gaza would essentially end as a result of Israel’s ‘opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents’ free movements and targeting residents in border areas’. An additional clause noted that ‘other matters as may be requested shall be addressed,’ a reference to private commitments by Egypt and the US to help thwart weapons smuggling into Gaza, though Hamas has denied this interpretation of the clause.

During the three months that followed the ceasefire, Shin Bet recorded only a single attack: two mortar shells fired from Gaza in December 2012. Israeli officials were impressed. But they convinced themselves that the quiet on Gaza’s border was primarily the result of Israeli deterrence and Palestinian self-interest. Israel therefore saw little incentive in upholding its end of the deal. In the three months following the ceasefire, its forces made regular incursions into Gaza, strafed Palestinian farmers and those collecting scrap and rubble across the border, and fired at boats, preventing fishermen from accessing the majority of Gaza’s waters.

The end of the closure never came. Crossings were repeatedly shut. So-called buffer zones – agricultural lands that Gazan farmers couldn’t enter without being fired on – were reinstated. Imports declined, exports were blocked, and fewer Gazans were given exit permits to Israel and the West Bank.

More here.

Pirzada Qasim – Zakham Dabay Tu Phir Naya Teer Chala Diya Karo

There is a tradition in Urdu poetry of poets singing their own poems a capella in melodies of their own devising. This is a good example of a contemporary poet doing just that. Pirzada Qasim is an accomplished scientist and educator in addition to being a poet. He has served as Vice Chancellor of Karachi University.

This post is dedicated to Robert Pinsky for whom I sang the first two couplets of this poem recently. He seemed to like it. Well, at least he was polite enough not to say otherwise! Enjoy. 🙂

Democracy Causes Economic Development?


Daron Acemoglu, Suresh Naidu, James A Robinson and Pascual Restrepo in Vox EU:

A belief that democracy is bad for economic growth is common in both academic political economy as well as the popular press. Robert Barro’s seminal research in this area concluded that “More political rights do not have an effect on growth…The first lesson is that democracy is not the key to economic growth” (Barro 1997, pp. 1 and 11). Meanwhile, reacting to the rise of China, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman argues:

“One-party nondemocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century []

In “Democracy Does Cause Growth”, we present evidence from a panel of countries between 1960 and 2010 challenging this view. Our results show a robust and sizable effect of democracy on economic growth. Our central estimates suggest that a country that switches from nondemocracy to democracy achieves about 20% higher GDP per capita in the long run (over roughly the next 30 years). These are large but not implausible effects, and suggest that the global rise in democracy over the past 50 years (of over 30 percentage points) has yielded roughly 6% higher world GDP.

There are several challenges in estimating the impact of democracy on growth. First, existing democracy indices are typically subject to considerable measurement error, leading to spurious changes in the democracy score of a country even though its democratic institutions do not truly change.

More here.

On Joyce and Syphilis

0076-GettyImages-Harpers-1407-390 (1)

Kevin Birmingham in Harper's blog (James Joyce © Photo Researchers/Getty Images):

In 1917, while walking down a street in Zurich, James Joyce suffered an “eye attack” and remained frozen in agony for twenty minutes. Lingering pain left him unable to read or write for weeks. Joyce had endured at least two previous attacks, and after the third he allowed a surgeon to cut away a piece of his right iris in order to relieve ocular pressure. Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s partner, wrote to Ezra Pound that following the procedure Joyce’s right eye bled for days.

Joyce was suffering from a case of glaucoma brought on by acute anterior uveitis, an inflammation of his iris. It was, unfortunately, nothing new. Joyce’s first recorded bout of uveitis was in 1907, when he was twenty-five years old, and the attacks recurred for more than twenty years. To save his vision, Joyce had about a dozen eye surgeries (iridectomies, sphincterectomies, capsulectomies) — every one of them performed without general anesthetic. He lay in dark rooms for days or weeks at a time, and his post-surgical eye patches became his trademark. Doctors applied leeches to siphon blood from his eyes. They gave him atropine and scopolamine, which cause hallucinations and anxiety, to dilate his pupils. They administered vapor baths, sweating powders, cold and hot compresses, endocrine treatment and iodine injections. They prescribed special diets (oatmeal and leafy vegetables) and warmer climates. They disinfected his eyes with silver nitrate, salicylic acid, and boric acid; instilled them with dionine to dissipate nebulae; and doused them with cocaine to numb the pain. Nothing really helped.

More here.

On Octavia Butler’s “Unexpected Stories” and Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind “


Noah Berlatsky in The LA Review of Books:

The utopia in Gone With the Wind is predicated on the insistence that black people in the South found slavery to be a pretty good life. In the voice of its heroine, the novel asserts that “slaves were neither miserable nor unfortunate. The negroes were far better off under slavery than they were now under freedom, and if she didn’t believe it, just look about […]!” — as if looking around would offer reassurance.

Mitchell takes care to make her black characters — or at least her “good” black characters — constantly express their enthusiasm for the antebellum hierarchy. Mammy, Scarlett’s longtime nurse and companion, may be “black, but her code of conduct and her sense of pride were as high as or higher than those of her owners.” Mitchell means that Mammy looks down on poor whites and field slaves alike; she is fiercely protective of the social standing of the O’Haras’. In the world of this novel, Mammy sees herself as a member of the family, and her service is based on love and affection, rather than on fear that she might be whipped, raped, or shot at will. Blacks in Gone With the Wind identify so closely with their white families that when Atlanta is invaded, the slaves are panic-stricken, actually afraid of freedom, as if they’re children about to be robbed of their parents. In Mitchell’s portrayal of Reconstruction, “good” black people, like Scarlett’s former foreman, Big Sam, express as much horror at the new, fallen world as the whites do. A group of Yankees “ast me ter set down wid dem, lak Ah wuz jes’ as good as dey wuz,” Sam says, with mixed indignation and confusion. Visions of utopia in Gone With the Wind become forces for imperialism in themselves. In this case, the prey is actively enthusiastic about being fed on by the mosquitoes. For Mitchell, happiness legitimizes, and enables, slavery.

Octavia Butler’s final book, the vampire novel Fledgling,explicitly draws the links between blood, slavery, and happiness. The narrator is an “Ina” — a young, black female vampire — named Shori. Shori uses her bite, which is physically and emotionally addictive, to surround herself with a number of dependent “symbionts” who love and serve her, sexually and otherwise. The novel, which is told from Shori’s point of view, encourages the reader to sympathize with her as she builds a small, utopian community ruled by herself as benevolent mistress. However, as Isaac Butler points out on my website, the Hooded Utilitarian, if you read against the novel just a little bit, the subtext is disturbing.

More here.

The Argentina Debt Case


Jayati Ghosh in Naked Capitalism (image from wikimedia commons):

Ever since it bought Argentine bonds at around 20 per cent of the face value in 2008, it has been pursuing the case both legally and physically. In 2012, it hired mercenaries to detain and try to seize an Argentine ship where it was docked off the coast of Ghana; at another time it even attempted to grab the Argentina Presidential plane from an airport—as “collateral” for its supposed holding of debt. Legally, NML Capital and another vulture fund, Aurelius Capital Management LP, have been pursuing a case in a New York district court, demanding full payment on their debt, of the value of around $1.5 billion. It has been estimated by the Argentine government that this could amount to a return of more than 1600 per cent on the initial investment made by these vulture funds.

In 2012, U.S. District Judge in New York Thomas Griesa ruled in favour of the hedge funds, which was both extraordinary in law and devastating in its potential implications not just for Argentina but for finance in general. The Argentine government appealed against it, but this appeal has now been dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Consider just some elements of this U.S. court decision. First, it is based on a peculiar and unprecedented interpretation of the pari passu (equal treatment) clause, which holds that all bond holders must be treated alike. The courts have interpreted this to mean that a sovereign debtor must make full payment on a defaulted claim if it makes any payments on restructured bonds. So if the bondholders who agreed to restructure 93 per cent of the Argentine debt are being paid according to their agreement, then the other resisting bond holders must also be paid the full value of their debts!

The immediate effect of this would be to disable Argentina from repaying $832 million of debt to other bondholders (who have already received around 90 per cent of their debt) unless it also pays the holdouts in full, thereby forcing the country into technical default. Economy Minister Alex Kicilloff noted in a speech to the United Nations that this contradicts Argentina’s own laws and its clear agreements with creditors in the restructuring process that it would not treat other creditors differently. An official statement from the Argentine government called this judgement “senseless and unheard of”, and pointed out that by attempting to block the payment, the judge “has abused his power and gone outside of his jurisdiction because the holders of restructured bonds are not the object of this litigation.”

This is effectively leaving the country no choice but default on its other legal obligations. “Not paying while having the resources and forcing a voluntary default is something that is not contemplated in Argentine law. It would be a clear violation of the debt prospects.”

This absurd interpretation of the pari passu clause does indeed have systemic implications. It effectively makes a mockery of all debt renegotiation agreements, since there would be no incentive for any creditor to accept less than full value of the debt if some other creditor will be paid in full. It is therefore also in contradiction to the United States’ own bankruptcy laws under Chapter 9 and Chapter 11. Indeed, bankruptcy laws are in place in most market economies precisely to ensure that there can be an orderly workout when debts cannot be repaid in full.

There is a reason for this. No credit system can function or has ever functioned with zero default. This possibility of default is embedded into credit contracts through the interest rate, with interest rate spreads operating as the market estimate of the probability of a default.

More here.

Sunday Poem

“Before the beginning is the end of another beginning.” —R.Bob

History of the Future

Again a new era has been promised. It’s
already here, curled like a fetus. About to be born.
They say it’s a new world. But here is the history of its future:

Somewhere at some point in time
documents and papers will be required.
There will be a receptionist at a government office
or a security screener at an airport, but
in every era somewhere in the world
a gendarme is liable to demand papers.

This means: Somewhere in the world a passport will be forged.

And someday an army will invade a city, called
Prague or Baghdad
or New York. Any name is possible.
Many things will happen under cover of night.
Knocks on the door.
Arbitrary arrest.
A father torn from the arms of his child,
His disappearance.

Many things will happen in broad daylight.
In the marketplace and the stock market, trade will continue as usual. So will
the pogrom.

Very soon the mob will join in:
Spraying slogans against one minority or another
for one reason or another. A demand
will be made to prohibit entry to the continent, the country
or the grocery store.
At its door a puppy will wait for its master.
Someone will leave behind books and photos,
an old blanket, a magnificent armchair of happiness.
And someone he loves.
But he will not forget to take a coat.
With pockets. As long as he leaves in time
with his face. And with cash.
Many will flee on foot.
Some will escape by train.

There is no escapee without a pursuer.
There is no shelter without a storm.
The world is a rifle butt
The night — flashing police cars.

At least one person — perhaps even you? — will lose
the way, pray it ends. There he is, look,
leaning on the parapet of the dark;
boats going by downriver
and cars on the bridge
grab him
for a fraction of a second.
He jumps.
Or stays. But manages to fall away
like a view through a window.

Your window, perhaps?

by Shachar Mario Mordechai
from Toldot ha atid
publisher: Even Hoshen, Raanana, 2010

it is not anti-Semitic to say: not in my name

Laurie Penny in New Statesman:

BoyPeople of Jewish descent have every reason to be hyper-vigilant about anti-Semitic language and it is stupid to pretend that there’s none of it in the global movement for Palestinian freedom. It’s stupid to pretend that nobody ever conflates Jews with Zionists, or labels the Jewish people bloodthirsty and barbarous. And it hurts like hell to hear hoary old words of hate trickling through a movement that is about justice, about freedom, about protecting some of the world’s most persecuted people. It hurts just as much, however, to hear right-wing Israelis tell Jews around the world that the violence is for us, for our ancestors, for our children.

It is not anti-Semitic to suggest that Israel doesn’t get a free pass to kill whoever it likes in order to feel “safe”. It is not anti-Semitic to point out that if what Israel needs to feel “safe” is to pen the Palestinian people in an open prison under military occupation, the state’s definition of safety might warrant some unpacking. And it is not anti-Semitic to say that this so-called war is one in which only one side actually has an army. It is not hate speech to reiterate the wild disparity in casualties. More than 600 Palestinians have been killed this past week, most of them civilians. Fewer than 30 Israelis have died, and most of them were soldiers. To speak of proportionality is not to call, as at least one silverback columnist has claimed, for “more dead Jews”.

More here.

On the Slaughter: A political poem’s ironic new life

Peter Cole in The Paris Review:

And cursed be he who cries out: Revenge!
Vengeance like this, for the blood of a child,
Satan has yet to devise.
Let the blood fill the abyss!
Let it pierce the blackest depths
and devour the darkness
and eat away and reach
the rotting foundations of the earth.

Bialik_parisreview-001Political poems lead strange lives—they often wither on the vines of the events they’re tied to. Old news gives way to new, and the whole undertaking starts to seem, well, an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. For many and maybe most American readers, “poetry and politics just don’t mix.” But sometimes they do. Quite violently. On June 12, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped while hitchhiking home together from their West Bank yeshivas. They were murdered—most likely within hours of being taken—and, eighteen days later, after an extensive search, their bodies were discovered under some rocks in a field near Hebron. Israel mourned, and raged. Emerging from a cabinet meeting convened just after the corpses were found, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his condolences to the families and quoted the great modernist Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik: “Vengeance … for the blood of a small child, / Satan has not yet created.” He went on in his own words: “Hamas is responsible—and Hamas will pay.” For good measure, the Prime Minister’s office tweeted the lines as well.

…Several days before Israel deployed its Protective Edge, a New York Times article quoted Netanyahu quoting Bialik; a few days later, the paper’s editorial deplored the metastasizing racist rhetoric. “Even Mr. Netanyahu,” the paper wrote, “referenced an Israeli poem that reads: ‘Vengeance for the blood of a small child … ’ ” Then it carefully weighted the paragraph for the usual pantomime of equal time, noting that Israelis have long had to live with Hamas’s violent ways and put up with hateful speech from Palestinians. Never mind that the poem intoned by Mr. Netanyahu wasn’t Israeli: it was written long before the state was founded and very far from it. “On the Slaughter” was the thirty-year-old Odessan Hayim Nahman Bialik’s immediate response to the April 1903 pogroms in the Bessarabian town of Kishinev, where some forty-nine Jews were slashed, hacked, and cudgeled to death, or drowned in outhouse feces, and hundreds were wounded over the course of several days. Women and girls were raped repeatedly. The Jewish part of town was decimated. Netanyahu quoted just two lines, carefully avoiding the one preceding them: “Cursed be he who cries out: Revenge!”

More here. (Thanks to C.M. Naim).

Laughter in Ancient Rome

Gregory Hays in the New York Review of Books:

Hays_1-071014_png_250x938_q85In 1984 the American satirist Veronica Geng was asked to introduce a reprint of Dwight Macdonald’s Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm—and After. Rather than writing a conventional preface, she decided to depict the authors in the anthology as characters from the Travis McGee mysteries of John D. MacDonald—or rather, from their jacket blurbs: “Cyril Connolly—whose bait box harbored a poisonous cargo”; “Robert Benchley—the Vietnam vet who drifted freely between the glittering cabanas of the Fun Coast and the oil-stained walkways of a derelict marina”; “Jane Austen—bright, petite, blonde, suntanned—she couldn’t get a license to open her health spa, but she didn’t need a license to kill.”

Why is this piece funny? The answer, according to one popular theory, is that humor is grounded in incongruity. Certainly a good part of the fun here lies in encountering familiar figures in an unfamiliar light: H.L. Mencken as ill-fated condo salesman, or Ring Lardner as “human flotsam” churned up by the “Colombia drug-smuggling underground.” And of course the whole piece rests on a basic crossing of verbal wires (what if Dwight Macdonald were John D. MacDonald?).

A rival explanation holds that laughter springs from a feeling of superiority—a “suddaine Conception of some Eminency in our selves,” as Hobbes put it, “by Comparison with the Infirmityes of others.” Geng’s squib might seem to offer less support for this theory. But look again. Obviously the piece requires some generic familiarity with hard-boiled detective novels and their blurbs. But it also helps to know something about the individual authors. For the descriptions are not as arbitrary as they may appear. “Petite, blonde” Jane Austen’s unlicensed “health spa” is Bath transported to the Gulf Coast. The real Cyril Connolly’s bait box really did harbor a poisonous cargo. Benchley was adrift in his later years, his talent drained by Hollywood (“the Fun Coast”) and the bottle (the “derelict marina”).

More here.