Seamus Heaney died three years ago. But not before he penned this.

From Literary Hub:

ScreenHunter_2183 Aug. 31 21.41As a child, William Wordsworth imagined he heard the moorlands breathing down his neck; he rowed in panic when he thought a cliff was pursuing him across moonlit water; and once, when he found himself on the hills east of Penrith Beacon, beside a gibbet where a murderer had been executed, the place and its associations were enough to send him fleeing in terror to the beacon summit.

Every childhood has its share of such uncanny moments. Nowadays, however, it is easy to underestimate the originality and confidence of a writer who came to consciousness in the far from child-centred eighteenth century and then managed to force a way through its literary conventions and its established modes of understanding: by intuition and introspection he recognized that such moments were not only the foundation of his sensibility, but the clue to his fulfilled identity.

By his late twenties, Wordsworth knew this one big truth, and during the next ten years he kept developing its implications with intense excitement, industry and purpose. During this period, he also elaborated a personal idiom: “nature” and “imagination” are not words that belong exclusively to Wordsworth, yet they keep coming up when we consider his achievement, which is the largest and most securely founded in the canon of native English poetry since Milton. He is an indispensable figure in the evolution of modern writing, a finder and keeper of the self-as-subject, a theorist and apologist whose Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802) remains definitive.

More here.

How the simple definition of a hydrogen bond gives us a glimpse into the heart of chemistry

Ashutosh Jogalekar in The Curious Wavefunction:

ScreenHunter_2182 Aug. 31 21.32A few years ago, a committee organized by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) – the international body of chemists that defines chemical terms and guides the lexicon of the field – met to debate and finalize the precise definition of a hydrogen bond.

Defining a hydrogen bond in the year 2011? Hydrogen bonds have been known for at least seventy years now. It was in the 1940s that Linus Pauling defined them as foundational elements of protein structure; the glue that holds molecules including life-giving biological molecules like proteins and DNA together. Water molecules form hydrogen bonds with each other, and this feature accounts for water's unique properties. Whether it's sculpting the shape and form of DNA, governing the properties of materials or orchestrating the delicate dance of biochemistry performed by enzymes, these interactions are essential. Simply put, without hydrogen bonds, not just modern civilization but life itself would cease to exist. No wonder that they have been extensively studied in hundreds of thousands of molecular structures since Pauling highlighted them in the 1940s. Today no chemistry textbook would be legitimate without a section on hydrogen bonding. The concept of a hydrogen bond has become as familiar and important to a chemist as the concept of an electromagnetic wave or pressure is to a physicist.

What the devil, then, were chemists doing defining them in 2011?

More here.

The Co-Founder of n+1 Is ‘Against Everything’

Daphne Merkin in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_2181 Aug. 31 21.24We live in singularly unsubtle times, when presidential candidates shout invective instead of delivering talking points and Twitter posts privilege catchiness over nuance. Then again, ours has never been a culture to value the reflective life — unlike in France, say, where public intellectuals hold political positions, or England, where Oxbridge dons form an aristocracy of the mind. Except for a brief period during the last century, from the 1930s through the 1960s or so, when an active intelligentsia (even the word sounds dated) loosely known as the New York Intellectuals formed around a clutch of publications including Partisan Review, The Nation and Commentary, and critics like Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy had a say on matters literary and political, we tend to give short shrift to intellection for its own sake, regarding it as something best corralled off in the academy.

And indeed, for the last 20 years, instead of thinkers, we have seen the rise of pundits, those ubiquitous opiners on the news of the day who take the short view of necessity. This trend has been bucked by a handful of serious-minded magazines with a spectacularly small readership and by the occasional erudite voice in newspapers like this one. Sensing a gap in the discourse, a group of young, mostly ­Harvard-educated writers started a publication called n+1 in 2004, which attempted to fill the void where Partisan Review and the like had once engaged in “the life of significant contention,” as Diana Trilling put it. Which brings us, happily, to the occasion of “Against Everything,” a new collection of essays by Mark Greif, an editor at n+1 (where most of these pieces first appeared) and a frequent contributor since its inception on widely disparate themes.

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happy death poem

Donald-revellCraig Morgan Teicher at Poetry Magazine:

Donald Revell has mastered a poetic genre few poets even attempt: the happy poem. That’s not to say that his poetry doesn’t grapple with darkness—it does, and deeply. This poem is called “Death,” after all, and Revell tries as hard as he can in this small space to meet mortality head-on. One of Revell’s possible goals is to engender a sense of awe: in his poems, life is fundamentally amazing, even though—even because—it has an ending. Poets write poems for many reasons, chief among them to express feelings, to articulate the vagaries and fine points of an emotional state. Poets also write to create emotional states in readers, and this Revell poem invites readers to accept death. Without ever forgetting the mortal stakes of every moment, Revell manages to sing joyfully, no matter his subject. He knows deeply what the words have always been telling him: that all our terrors, such as “space and time,” are “inventions / Of sorrowing men”; in this poem, he chooses not to be one.

As a celebratory poet, Revell is in good company: Shakespeare, Donne, Blake, Herbert,Dickinson, and Whitman come to mind as voices playing in the background of “Death.” All these poets revel—a pun on Revell’s name that he seems to have taken seriously—in details and in the capacity of the imagination to elevate them toward a kind of holiness. Of course, many of these poets also had a particular kind of holiness in mind, as does Revell; when he (or the others) uses the word soul, he means it in the Christian sense: the immortal soul that will live eternally in heaven.

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Yarbrough-web1Marshall Yarbrough at The Brooklyn Rail:

For a while now I’ve had a theory about a select group of artists who were making music in the 1960s and ’70s. These are musicians who seem related to their time only obliquely: they may have been marked by it, but they were not of it. Other artists’ greatness might lie in their perfectly embodying certain musical directions of the day—the Beatles, for example. These musicians, on the other hand, have inherent greatness; that it might have been expressed in the language of their day is instructive, but ultimately incidental—they were tapping a deeper vein.

These musicians evoke a term used for a few writers in German literature—Jean Paul, Hölderlin, Kleist—who pop up between the eras of Classicism and Romanticism but don’t fit neatly in either category: die großen Einzelnen, or “the great individuals.” These writers fall between both epochs and draw from each, but to understand them you ultimately have to take them on their own terms. Likewise, each of these few musicians is a category unto himself—if they are to be viewed collectively, it is by virtue of their shared idiosyncrasy. To the extent that it’s helpful, I’d like to label this group. For want of a better term, I’ll call them the Great White Weirdos.

Each Weirdo works, if not within the confines of, then at least alongside a given genre. Thus you’ve got blues and jazz Weirdos (Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa); country Weirdos (Leon Russell, Lee Hazlewood); and pop Weirdos (Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson). There’s no getting around the fact that these are all white men. In emphasizing their whiteness alongside their weirdness, I want to point out a certain self-awareness on their part, particularly when it comes to the use of rock, jazz, and blues—musical forms developed by black musicians.

more here.

Nicholson Baker, Substitute Teacher

Baker_photo460Malcolm Harris at The New Republic:

Baker is often frustrated with the material he’s asked to push on students, and this reaches its peak with a graphic Holocaust documentary called Auschwitz: Death Camp starring Oprah and Elie Wiesel that he shows to successive 10th-grade English classes. Watching piles of bodies, Baker thinks,

I knew that this was the wrong documentary to be showing to a group of choiceless, voiceless high school kids at eight-thirty on a Monday morning, in connection with a compare-and-contrast media-studies assignment … These high schoolers were being tortured to the point of numbness and indifference by gruesome imagery—and the Holocaust was being trivialized through inattention, both at the same time. Why was this happening? Why was I a part of this?

By the end of the video two girls are doing a cheerleader-style H-O-L-O-C-A-U-S-T! chant, and Baker doesn’t know whom to blame.

Classroom technology has changed a lot since Baker last visited—even since I did—and having a substitute isn’t the break for students it used to be if their daily progress is watched by a school iPad. Some teachers take a curatorial approach, delegating a large portion of their pedagogy to instructional apps, Youtube videos, and downloaded worksheets. On day nine Baker hears two teachers discussing iPad assignments when they have subs, “You delete them without reading them?” one asks. “Yes,” the other says, “They don’t do anything anyway.”

more here.

A literary guide to hating Barack Obama

Carlos Lozada in The Washington Post:

Secret Muslim. Socialist. Amateur. Anti-American. Criminal.

DownloadThroughout the presidency of Barack Obama, and even before it, a chorus of writers has stood stage right, reinterpreting the era but mainly eviscerating the man. Obama, initially little known, became a literary subgenre and publishing obsession, with countless volumes attacking the president, promising to unmask who he really is, what he really thinks and why he does the things he does. And for a while, at least, the books sold well. Selecting a representative set among dozens and dozens of titles in the Obama hatred literature is not easy. Do you go with “Impeachable Offenses” or “The Manchurian President”? “Divider-in-Chief” or “The Obama Nation”? “Culture of Corruption” or “The Roots of Obama’s Rage”? A sample of such books, spanning 2008 to 2016, shows that, while the anti-Obama canon can be predictable, it is by no means static. The aversion to the president is always growing, and the nature of that aversion is always evolving toward harsher conclusions. In the beginning, there was ignorance, and the void of our Obama knowledge was filled with speculation, bits of autobiography and family lore. The senator from Illinois was deemed dangerous for all that he might be: distant, unfamiliar, foreign in so many ways. Once he sat in the Oval Office, however, the attacks shifted, and the president became that most recognizable of political creatures: unprincipled, corrupt, Chicago. As conservative disdain intensified throughout his first term, Obama came to be seen as a bungler, in over his head (think the Libya intervention or Operation Fast and Furious). Yet soon he was redefined once more, this time as a brilliant subversive: It’s not that Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing but that he knows all too well. That leads, inevitably, to the final and most damning judgment — that this president is a criminal.

Donald Trump’s rise in GOP presidential politics has drawn sustenance and inspiration from the anti-Obama literature, regardless of whether its authors support the candidate. Indeed, the arc of Trump’s criticisms of the president, from his birtherism in 2011 to his more recent charge that Obama is “the founder of ISIS,” traces, in a distorted and exaggerated way, these portrayals of the president, from unknown outsider to recidivist lawbreaker. These books and writers do not necessarily agree with one another. But they do build upon each other. And if the 2016 Republican presidential nominee has succeeded in tapping into right-wing anger, it is an anger that has been chronicled, reflected and stoked by the anti-Obama literary canon.

More here.

How DNA could store all the world’s data

Andy Extance in Nature:

Digital_DNAIt was Wednesday 16 February 2011, and Goldman was at a hotel in Hamburg, Germany, talking with some of his fellow bioinformaticists about how they could afford to store the reams of genome sequences and other data the world was throwing at them. He remembers the scientists getting so frustrated by the expense and limitations of conventional computing technology that they started kidding about sci-fi alternatives. “We thought, 'What's to stop us using DNA to store information?'” Then the laughter stopped. “It was a lightbulb moment,” says Goldman, a group leader at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) in Hinxton, UK. True, DNA storage would be pathetically slow compared with the microsecond timescales for reading or writing bits in a silicon memory chip. It would take hours to encode data by synthesizing DNA strings with a specific pattern of bases, and still more hours to recover that information using a sequencing machine. But with DNA, a whole human genome fits into a cell that is invisible to the naked eye. For sheer density of information storage, DNA could be orders of magnitude beyond silicon — perfect for long-term archiving.

“We sat down in the bar with napkins and biros,” says Goldman, and started scribbling ideas: “What would you have to do to make that work?” The researchers' biggest worry was that DNA synthesis and sequencing made mistakes as often as 1 in every 100 nucleotides. This would render large-scale data storage hopelessly unreliable — unless they could find a workable error-correction scheme. Could they encode bits into base pairs in a way that would allow them to detect and undo the mistakes? “Within the course of an evening,” says Goldman, “we knew that you could.” He and his EBI colleague Ewan Birney took the idea back to their labs, and two years later announced that they had successfully used DNA to encode five files, including Shakespeare's sonnets and a snippet of Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech1. By then, biologist George Church and his team at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had unveiled an independent demonstration of DNA encoding2. But at 739 kilobases (kB), the EBI files comprised the largest DNA archive ever produced — until July 2016, when researchers from Microsoft and the University of Washington claimed a leap to 200 megabytes (MB).

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Mornings at Seven

Wild geese stir in the early morning calm
with the ripple of their wake.
Far off,
near the shore’s arm of dune that holds the pond,
a kayak glides,
someone seeking peace
and looking up to find it in the sky.

A sudden commotion of the water at my shore!
Two swimmers diving in together
side by side exactly.
Man and woman—
I can see the sickle-splash of arms and legs in ardent crawl,
and the watery tumult of pumping feet.

But more, and
is a joyous energy of purpose in the two of them,
heading out.
And a determination to be swimming side by side,
so that in coming up for air, their eyes can meet.

The seriousness of their purpose shouts to heaven,
and gives this pond and sky
a grounding and a glory,
announcing that their heading out, together, side by side,
is no more the single purpose of their beings,
then is the night of sleeping side by side.

And they have found that that’s the simple whole if it.

by Peggy Freydberg
from Poems from the Pond
Hybrid Nation, 2015

Great Exploitations

Eric Loomis in the Boston Review:

51bKFQyK3BL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_At least since the passage of California’s Proposition 13 in 1978—in which property owners voted to halve their property taxes—the United States has struggled with an anti-tax mentality revolving around the belief that government is ineffective. That sentiment is nowhere so clearly expressed as in wingnut Grover Norquist’s famous dictum that government should be small enough to drown in a bathtub. Indeed, the right’s efforts to starve government of the level of resources necessary for competent functioning have made a self-fulfilling prophecy of the claim that government is moribund.

Daniel L. Hatcher’s The Poverty Industry exposes one way that states have responded to the anti-tax climate and diminishing federal funds. Facing budget crises but reluctant to raise taxes, many state politicians treat federal dollars available for poverty-relief programs as an easy mark from which they can mine revenue without political consequence. They divert federal funding earmarked for social programs for children and the elderly, repurposing it for their general funds with the help of private companies that in effect launder money for them. A law professor at the University of Baltimore who has represented Maryland victims of such schemes, Hatcher presents a distressing picture of how states routinely defraud taxpayers of millions of federal dollars.

This is possible because there is a near-total absence of accountability for how states use federal money intended to fight poverty. Remarkably, states do not even have to pretend to have used all the funds for the stated purpose; they are only required to show that they are taking care of the populations for which the funds were intended.

More here.

The Simple, Elegant Algorithm That Makes Google Maps Possible

Michael Byrne in Motherboard:

ScreenHunter_2179 Aug. 31 06.16Algorithms are a science of cleverness. A natural manifestation of logical reasoning—​mathematical induction, in particular—a good algorithm is like a fleeting, damning snapshot into the very soul of a problem. A jungle of properties and relationships becomes a simple recurrence relation, a single-line recursive step producing boundless chaos and complexity. And to see through deep complexity, it takes cleverness.

It was the programming pioneer Edsger W. Dijkstra that really figured this out, and his namesake algorithm remains one of the cleverest things in computer science. A relentless advocate of simplicity and elegance in mathematics, he more or less believed that every complicated problem had an accessible ground floor, a way in, and math was a tool to find it and exploit it.

In 1956, Dijkstra was working on the ARMAC, a parallel computing machine based at the Netherlands’ Mathematical Center. It was a successor to the ARRA and ARRA II machines, which had been essentially the country’s first computers. His job was programming the thing, and once ARMAC was ready for its first public unveiling—after two years of concerted effort—Dijkstra needed a problem to solve.

“For a demonstration for noncomputing people you have to have a problem statement that non-mathematicians can understand,” Dijkstra recalled in an interviewnot long before his 2002 death. “They even have to understand the answer. So I designed a program that would find the shortest route between two cities in the Netherlands, using a somewhat reduced road-map of the Netherlands, on which I had selected 64 cities.”

More here.

Nicole Eisenman and the Resurrection of Figuration

Morgan Meis in The Easel:

NE-psychThe contemporary painter Nicole Eisenman tells a rather moving story about winning a MacArthur “genius” grant in the late summer of 2015. She went to a quiet place and wept. Similar experiences have, no doubt, beset many MacArthur recipients. The grant is a crowning glory to an artist’s career, conveying recognition at the highest level along with no small amount of legal tender ($625,000 as of last year). You too would probably cry.

It should also be said that, for Eisenman, the tears were related to art, and to painting in particular. That’s because Eisenman has, for many years now, been making paintings that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to meet the favor of critics, curators, and academics. Since those are the sorts of folk who act as judges at the MacArthur Foundation, it seemed a safe bet that Nicole Eisenman wasn’t going to be in the running. Why is this? Mostly, it is because Eisenman adopts a cartoony painting style and a light, joking attitude on many of her canvases (though by no means all). Take, for instance, a painting called The Session, from 2008.

Stylistically, the painting verges on being a panel from a cartoon strip. A figure resembling Eisenman herself reclines on a couch at her analyst’s office. She has dirty bare feet and a hole in her pants. She clutches desperately at a box of tissues as she weepingly shares tales of woe to her analyst, who jots down notes in a chair nearby. A vase near a bookcase at the left side of the painting is shaped like a phallus. It is a cute and gently self-mocking painting, but not obviously the stuff to put the contemporary art world on notice.

On second glance, however, even a relatively “light” painting like The Session is making a strong argument about what painting can and should be.

More here.

What became of the Christian intellectuals?

53cd0180d07a5_Étienne_gilsonAlan Jacobs at Harper's Magazine:

The terms “nativism,” “reactionary,” even “fascism” appear in political conversation with increasing regularity. Though few of these leaders profess deep religious commitments, their popularity seems driven in significant part by religious ressentiment — an awareness of the decline of Christian (or “Judeo-Christian”) civilization and a determination to arrest and, if possible, reverse that decline.

Political liberals who long expected to live in an increasingly liberal world may find themselves disoriented by these manifestations, whose nature they are ill prepared to understand, and they certainly wish such “forces of reaction” would just go away. But these forces will not go away. If we were to wish for something less fantastic than the disappearance of our political opposites, we might think along these lines: It would be valuable to have at our disposal some figures equipped for the task of mediation — people who understand the impulses from which these troubling movements arise, who may themselves belong in some sense to the communities driving these movements but are also part of the liberal social order. They should be intellectuals who speak the language of other intellectuals, including the most purely secular, but they should also be fluent in the concepts and practices of faith. Their task would be that of the interpreter, the bridger of cultural gaps; of the mediator, maybe even the reconciler.

Half a century ago, such figures existed in America: serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage. They are gone now. It would be worth our time to inquire why they disappeared, where they went, and whether — should such a thing be thought desirable — they might return.

more here.

Death and Doctors’ Fears

Hans_Baldung_009Bert Keizer at Threepenny Review:

First, the scary subject of euthanasia. To avoid any misunderstanding: euthanasia, as I am defining it, is the handing or administering of a fatal overdose to a patient by a doctor on the patient’s request. This includes Physician Assisted Suicide. We shall not here go into all the terms and conditions attached to such an act here in the Netherlands. Suffice it to say that it is quite a procedure and not something that is arranged overnight or on the whim of a patient or a doctor. In the United States, the administering of a lethal medication by a doctor is never allowed, but under certain conditions Physician Assisted Suicide is allowed in five states—Oregon, California, Washington, Maine, and New Mexico —and may be on its way to legal status in Vermont.

It is often said that it takes courage to perform euthanasia, and a colleague described to me the other day why he finds it so difficult: “It feels somehow as if the very foundation of my existence is being undermined. The thought of it causes an experience of vertigo. A request almost seems to set me dangling above an abyss.”

I find this a very convincing description, because that is precisely what we feel when faced with the possibility of a predetermined, explicitly arranged death. It is a fearful business, but I don’t quite understand what it is we are so afraid of. Being courageous means that you realize the danger of a situation.

more here.

Who Is Kim Jong-un?

Nathan_1-081816Andrew J. Nathan at The NYRB:

The pudgy cheeks and flaring hairdo of North Korea’s young ruler Kim Jong-un, his bromance with tattooed and pierced former basketball star Dennis Rodman, his boy-on-a-lark grin at missile firings, combine incongruously with the regime’s pledge to drown its enemies in a “sea of fire.” They elicit a mix of revulsion and ridicule in the West. Many predict that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea cannot survive much longer, given its pervasive poverty, genocidal prison camp system identified by a UN commission of inquiry as committing crimes against humanity,1 self-imposed economic isolation, confrontations with all of its neighbors, and its leader’s youth and inexperience. The Obama administration has adopted a position of “strategic patience,” waiting for intensifying international sanctions to force North Korea either to give up its nuclear weapons or to implode and be taken over by the pro-Western government of South Korea.

But North Korea’s other closest neighbors, the Chinese, have never expected the DPRK to surrender or collapse, and so far they have been correct. Instead of giving up its nuclear bomb and missile programs, Pyongyang is by now thought to have between ten and twenty nuclear devices and over one thousand short-, medium-, and long-range missiles, and to be developing a compact warhead that will be able to hit the US mainland.

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Does Giftedness Matter?

Scott Barry Kaufman in Scientific American:

GiftThe thing is, the whole concept of giftedness was, from the very beginning of its inception, tied to educational outcomes. When Lewis Terman invented the concept*, he made giftedness synonymous with high IQ scores (on his own test, of course), and linked it to high achievement (genius). What seems to be going on here (and I document this trend in my book Ungifted), is that a sizable proportion of the gifted and talented community– mostly clinicians who actually work with such children on a daily basis– fundamentally conceptualize giftedness as something very different than high achievement, and often also very different from high cognitive ability. Now, don't get me wrong: I could get behind this newer conceptualization of giftedness. What this particular segment of the gifted and talented community seem to be describing as giftedness– exquisite sensitivity to the environment— certainly is a particular dimension of human variation that is important, and most certainly has substantial variation, like the rest of human personality differences.

But here's the thing: I think in order for this new conceptualization of giftedness to be tractable, it should have more clearly delineated properties, better measurement, and it should also be more clearly tied to particular educational interventions. What can you specifically do to support children who “experience the world intensely”? How do you identify that unique population in the first place, independent of IQ tests, academic achievement, and other very non-experiencing-oriented assessments? From a scientist's point of view, and even from a pragmatists point of view, I don't know what to do with this new definition of giftedness. How do you know what other people really feel, or how intensely they feel it? You know your own qualia, and that's it.

More here.

Quantitative Measures of Linguistic Diversity and Communication

by Hari Balasubramanian

Ethnologue_18_linguistic_diversity_index_BlankMap-World6.svgOf the 7097 languages in the world, twenty-three (including the usual suspects: Mandarin, English, Spanish, various forms of Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese) are spoken by half of the world's population. Hundreds of languages have only a handful of speakers and are disappearing quickly; one language dies every four months. Some parts of the world (dark green regions in the map) are linguistically far more diverse than others. Papua New Guinea, Cameroon, and India have hundreds of languages while in Japan, Iceland, Norway, and Cuba a single language dominates.

Why are languages distributed this way and why such large variations in diversity? These are hard questions to answer and I won't be dealing with them in this column. So many factors – conquest, empire, globalization, migration, trade necessities, privileged access that comes with adopting a dominant language, religion, administrative convenience, geography, the kind of neighbors one has – have had a role to play in determining the course of language history. Each region has its own story and it would be too hard to get into the details.

I also won't be discussing the merits and demerits of linguistic diversity. Personally, having grown up with five mutually unintelligible Indian languages, I am biased towards diversity – each language encapsulates a unique way of looking at the world and it seems (at least theoretically) that a multiplicity of worldviews is a good thing, worth preserving. But I am sure there are opposing arguments.

Instead, I'll restrict my focus to the following questions. How can the linguistic diversity of a particular region or country be numerically quantified? How do different parts of the world compare? How to account for the fact that languages may be related to one another, that individuals may speak multiple languages?

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Wide Awake with Isabel Hull

by Holly A. Case


German soldiers invading Belgium, August 1914

It was from Isabel Hull that I learned what tu quoque means, and how important it is to know. Hull is a professor of German history at Cornell, where I have also taught. Once I invited her to a class to talk about the British blockade of Germany during the First World War. She explained how the Germans had made war by invading neutral Belgium in 1914, knowing full well they were breaking international law. The title of her latest book, A Scrap of Paper (2014), alludes to the phrase that the German chancellor used to describe the international agreement governing Belgium's neutrality: it meant that little to him.

Hull described to my class the blockade's origins, what the Germans had thought and done, what the British were thinking, how they reached the decision to initiate the blockade, and what its likely impact was. But one concept stood out and remained a topic for discussion for the rest of the semester, even finding its way onto the final exam: it was the Latin phrase tu quoque. A literal translation of the phrase is “you also.” Tu quoque is a rhetorical strategy whereby, instead of arguing directly against the claim of your opponent, you challenge their right to make an argument by charging them with hypocrisy. For example: the British government asserts that Germany violated international law by invading neutral Belgium and persecuting its inhabitants. The German government retorts that the British government itself is in breach of international law for having subsequently initiated a naval blockade against Germany, cutting off not only its supply of raw materials, but also (potentially) food to civilians.

The tu quoque is as old as the hills. Cicero used it to win a case in the trial of the exile Ligarius: “You are accusing one who has a case, as I say, better than your own.” The Nazis were especially adept at deploying it. In 1942, the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels confided to his diary: “The question of Jewish persecution in Europe is being given top news priority by the English and the Americans…We won't even discuss this theme publicly, but instead I gave orders to start an atrocity campaign against the English on their treatment of Colonials.” There have been countless examples of tu quoque since. The Soviets countered American claims of human rights abuses with the phrase “And you are lynching negroes,” which has its own entry on Wikipedia. Some Turkish scholars have used tu quoque to argue against claims that the Ottoman Empire instigated a genocide against the Armenians in 1915: “No nation is innocent. [T]hough the West has always accused the rest of the world of not being civilized enough, no other nations can be compared with the Germans, French, or Americans if we are talking about racism, fascism, and genocide.”

In logic, the tu quoque is considered a fallacy, because it does not actually controvert the original statement. If anything, it confirms the moral valence of wrongdoing, declaring: Yes, I have done wrong, but so have you.

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