Unearthing the history of the ancient city-state of Palmyra

022b70ffe0014305b5afd1b7c559758f_18Paul Veyne at Lapham's Quarterly:

In the year 200 Palmyra was part of the vast Roman Empire at the height of its power, which extended from Andalusia to the Euphrates, from Morocco to Syria. When a traveler arrived in the merchant republic of Palmyra, a Greek or Italian trader on horseback, an Egyptian, a Jew, a magistrate sent by Rome, a Roman publican or soldier—in short, a citizen or subject of the empire—the newcomer immediately realized he had entered a new world. He heard an unknown language being spoken, a great language of the civilized world: Aramaic. (This stranger needed not worry about language, however; every rich person he encountered would have known Greek, the English of that time.) Local residents weren’t dressed like other inhabitants of the empire. Their clothing wasn’t draped but sewn like our modern clothing, and men wore wide trousers that looked a lot like those of the Persians. Noble Palmyrene horsemen, lords of import-export, wore a dagger around their waists, defying the prohibition against carrying weapons on one’s person that was imposed on citizens elsewhere in the empire. The women wore full-length tunics and cloaks that concealed only their hair; they wore an embroidered band around their heads, with a twisted turban on top. Others wore voluminous pantaloons. Their faces weren’t veiled, as was the custom in many regions of the Hellenic world. And so much jewelry! They may have been in the heart of the desert, but everything exuded wealth. There were statues everywhere, but they were made of bronze, not marble (there being no marble in Syria); in the great temple the columns had gilded bronze capitals.

more here.

A New Progressive Populism

1485618662FraserBerniePeoples_RallyLorie_Shaull666Nancy Fraser at Dissent:

Bernie Sanders is the exception that proves the rule. Though far from perfect, his campaign directly challenged established political fault lines. By targeting “the billionaire class,” he reached out to those abandoned by progressive neoliberalism, addressing communities struggling to preserve “middle-class” lives as victims of a “rigged economy” who deserve respect and are capable of making common cause with other victims, many of whom never had access to “middle-class” jobs. At the same time, Sanders split off a good chunk of those who had gravitated toward progressive neoliberalism. Though defeated by Clinton, he pointed the way to a potential counterhegemony: in place of the progressive-neoliberal alliance of financialization plus emancipation, he gave us a glimpse of a new, “progressive-populist” bloc combining emancipation with social protection.

In my view, the Sanders option remains the only principled and winning strategy in the era of Trump. To those who are now mobilizing under the banner of “resistance,” I suggest the counter-project of “course correction.” Whereas the first suggests a doubling down on progressive-neoliberalism’s definition of “us” (progressives) versus “them” (Trump’s “deplorable” supporters), the second means redrawing the political map—by forging common cause among all whom his administration is set to betray: not just the immigrants, feminists, and people of color who voted against him, but also the rust-belt and Southern working-class strata who voted for him. Contra Brenner, the point is not to dissolve “identity politics” into “class politics.” It is to clearly identify the shared roots of class and status injustices in financialized capitalism, and to build alliances among those who must join together to fight against both of them.

more here.

State of the Species

Charles C. Mann in Orion Magazine:

MannND12_Anonymous-silo-e1421175894287THE PROBLEM WITH environmentalists, Lynn Margulis used to say, is that they think conservation has something to do with biological reality. A researcher who specialized in cells and microorganisms, Margulis was one of the most important biologists in the last half century—she literally helped to reorder the tree of life, convincing her colleagues that it did not consist of two kingdoms (plants and animals), but five or even six (plants, animals, fungi, protists, and two types of bacteria).

Until Margulis’s death last year, she lived in my town, and I would bump into her on the street from time to time. She knew I was interested in ecology, and she liked to needle me. Hey, Charles, she would call out, are you still all worked up about protecting endangered species? Margulis was no apologist for unthinking destruction. Still, she couldn’t help regarding conservationists’ preoccupation with the fate of birds, mammals, and plants as evidence of their ignorance about the greatest source of evolutionary creativity: the microworld of bacteria, fungi, and protists. More than 90 percent of the living matter on earth consists of microorganisms and viruses, she liked to point out. Heck, the number of bacterial cells in our body is ten times more than the number of human cells! Bacteria and protists can do things undreamed of by clumsy mammals like us: form giant supercolonies, reproduce either asexually or by swapping genes with others, routinely incorporate DNA from entirely unrelated species, merge into symbiotic beings—the list is as endless as it is amazing. Microorganisms have changed the face of the earth, crumbling stone and even giving rise to the oxygen we breathe. Compared to this power and diversity, Margulis liked to tell me, pandas and polar bears were biological epiphenomena—interesting and fun, perhaps, but not actually significant.

Does that apply to human beings, too? I once asked her, feeling like someone whining to Copernicus about why he couldn’t move the earth a little closer to the center of the universe. Aren’t we special at all? This was just chitchat on the street, so I didn’t write anything down. But as I recall it, she answered that Homo sapiens actually might be interesting—for a mammal, anyway. For one thing, she said, we’re unusually successful.

More here.

Who was Frederick Douglass?

From Digital History:

Frederick Douglass has been called the father of the civil rights movement. He rose through determination, brilliance, and eloquence to shape the American nation. He was an abolitionist, human rights and women's rights activist, orator, author, journalist, publisher, and social reformer.

Douglas…Douglass established his own weekly abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, that became a major voice of African-American opinion. Later, through his periodical titled the Douglass Monthly, he recruited black Union soldiers for the African-American Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Volunteers. His sons Lewis and Charles both served in this regiment and saw combat. Douglass worked to retain the hard-won advances of African-Americans. However, the progress made during Reconstruction soon eroded as the twentieth century approached. Douglass spent his last years opposing lynching and supporting the rights of women. The antislavery crusade of the early nineteenth century served as a training ground for the women's suffrage movement. Douglass actively supported the women's rights movement, yet he believed black men should receive suffrage first. Demonstrating his support for women's rights, Douglass participated in the first feminist convention at Seneca Falls in July of 1848 where he was largely responsible for passage of the motion to support female suffrage. Together with abolitionist and feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Douglass signed the Declaration of Sentiments that became the movement's manifesto. His masthead of his newspaper, the North Star, once read "Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color." A women's rights activist to the end, Douglass died in February 1895, having just attended a Woman's Council meeting.

More here. (Note: At least one post throughout February will be in honor of Black History Month)

Thursday Poem

Whittling: The Last Class

What has been written
about whittling
is not true

most of it

It is the discovery
that keeps
the fingers moving

not idleness

but the knife looking for
the right plane
that will let the secret out

Whittling is no pastime

he says
who has been whittling
in spare minutes at the wood

of his life for forty years

Three rules he thinks
have helped
Make small cuts

In this way

you may be able to stop before
what was to be an arm
has to be something else

Always whittle away from yourself

and toward something.
For God's sake
and your own

know when to stop

Whittling is the best example
I know of what most
may happen when

least expected

bad or good
Hurry before
angina comes like a pair of pliers

over your left shoulder

There is plenty of wood
for everyone
and you

Go ahead now

May you find
in the waiting wood
rough unspoken

what is true

nearly true
true enough.

by Robert Stone
from In All This Rain
Louisiana State University Press, 1980

Ceci n’est pas une parodie: A Full Transcript Of Donald Trump’s Black History Month Remarks

From The Concourse:

MagrittePipeWell, the election, it came out really well. Next time we’ll triple the number or quadruple it. We want to get it over 51, right? At least 51.

Well this is Black History Month, so this is our little breakfast, our little get-together. Hi Lynn, how are you? Just a few notes. During this month, we honor the tremendous history of African-Americans throughout our country. Throughout the world, if you really think about it, right? And their story is one of unimaginable sacrifice, hard work, and faith in America. I’ve gotten a real glimpse—during the campaign, I’d go around with Ben to a lot of different places I wasn’t so familiar with. They’re incredible people. And I want to thank Ben Carson, who’s gonna be heading up HUD. That’s a big job. That’s a job that’s not only housing, but it’s mind and spirit. Right, Ben? And you understand, nobody’s gonna be better than Ben.

Last month, we celebrated the life of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose incredible example is unique in American history. You read all about Dr. Martin Luther King a week ago when somebody said I took the statue out of my office. It turned out that that was fake news. Fake news. The statue is cherished, it’s one of the favorite things in the—and we have some good ones. We have Lincoln, and we have Jefferson, and we have Dr. Martin Luther King. But they said the statue, the bust of Martin Luther King, was taken out of the office. And it was never even touched. So I think it was a disgrace, but that’s the way the press is. Very unfortunate.

More here.

The Making of Future Man

James Gleick in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_2564 Feb. 01 20.03The annual awards for best science fiction are called “Hugos.” A futuristic story by William Gibson in 1981 was called “The Gernsback Continuum.” But except for a few markers like these, Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967) has mostly vanished from our cultural memory, which is a pity, because he was an extraordinary man, and his influence on our modern age—electrical, science-permeated, and full of wonders—was outsized.

Gernsback is sometimes called the father of science fiction, though not because of any he wrote himself.(He did self-publish one novel, Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660, which Martin Gardner called “surely the worst SF novel ever written.”) He gave the new genre its name in the 1920s, when he published “pulp” magazines like Amazing Stories and Science Wonder Stories in which eager writers could ply their trade for pennies a word (when he paid them at all). “By ‘scientifiction,’” he declared, “I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.”

First, though, he was a radio man, immersed in and obsessed with the new technology of wireless communication. He was an inventor in the turn-of-the-century generation inspired by Thomas Edison; among his eighty patents are “Radio Horn”; “Detectorium”; “Luminous Electric Mirror”; “Ear Cushion” (for telephone receivers); “Combined Electric Hair Brush and Comb” (“may also be used as a massage instrument”). He formed the first radio hobbyist group, the Wireless Association of America, when he was twenty-five years old, and incorporated its successor, the Radio League of America, six years later; created Radio News magazine; and started one of New York’s first stations, WRNY, broadcasting from atop the Roosevelt Hotel on Madison Avenue. The station and the league promoted the magazine, and the magazine promoted the station and the league, and all promoted Gernsback. He was an evangelist for the church we might call electronic culture. Most of us are its parishioners nowadays, with our magic boxes.

More here.

A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick

George Scialabba in Inference Review:

ScreenHunter_2563 Feb. 01 19.59When two aspiring young writers meet and circle each other at a party in Boston, Brooklyn, or Berkeley, sooner or later (usually sooner) one will ask: “Do you have an agent?” Without one, every hopeful writer knows, you’re nowhere: editors nowadays are too beleaguered to read anything not vouched for by someone whose commercial judgment has been tested and vindicated in the literary marketplace.

According to the delightful science fiction romance film, Her, artificial intelligences also socialize, or will before long.1 I imagine them asking one another at parties, “Are you an agent?” They will not, of course, be asking about literary representation, but about the psychological or emotional or moral capacity we commonly call agency. They’ll be looking to find out whether the AI they’re meeting answers ultimately to itself or to someone else, whether it can set and change its own goals, whether it can surprise itself and others. Beings possessed of agency are autonomous, spontaneous, capable of initiative, and moved by internal as well as external forces or drives.

According to Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock, agency is everywhere, or at least far more widespread than is dreamt of in modern philosophy of science. If agency is “an intrinsic capacity to act in the world,”2 then science is not having any of it. It is “a founding principle of modern science … that a scientific explanation must not attribute will or agency to natural phenomena.”3 This ban on agency is the foundation of scientific epistemology; it “seems as close to the heart of what science is as any scientific rule or principle.”

More here.

The Dumbest Business Idea Ever: The Myth of Maximizing Shareholder Value

Lynn Stout in Evonomics:

ScreenHunter_2561 Feb. 01 18.57By the end of the 20th century, a broad consensus had emerged in the Anglo-American business world that corporations should be governed according to the philosophy often called shareholder primacy. Shareholder primacy theory taught that corporations were owned by their shareholders; that directors and executives should do what the company’s owners/shareholders wanted them to do; and that what shareholders generally wanted managers to do was to maximize “shareholder value,” measured by share price.

Today this consensus is crumbling. As just one example, in the past year no fewer than three prominent New York Times columnists have published articles questioning shareholder value thinking.1 Shareholder primacy theory is suffering a crisis of confidence. This is happening in large part because it is becoming clear that shareholder value thinking doesn’t seem to work, even for most shareholders.

Consider the example of the United States. The idea that corporations should be managed to maximize shareholder value has led over the past two decades to dramatic shifts in U.S. corporate law and practice. Executive compensation rules, governance practices, and federal securities laws, have all been “reformed” to give shareholders more influence over boards and to make managers more attentive to share price.2 The results are disappointing at best. Shareholders are suffering their worst investment returns since the Great Depression;3 the population of publicly-listed companies has declined by 40%;4 and the life expectancy of Fortune 500 firms has plunged from 75 years in the early 20th century to only 15 years today.

More here.

Poetry in a Time of Protest

Edwidge Danticat in The New Yorker:

Danticat-PoetryinaTimeofProtest-690Political language, like poetry, is rarely uttered without intention. When Trump said, unconvincingly in his speech, that “we are one nation, and their pain is our pain,” I knew that the They was Us, this separate America, which he continually labels and addresses as Other. “Their dreams are our dreams,” he added. To which I could hear the eternal bard of Harlem, Langston Hughes, shout from his grave, “What happens to a dream deferred?” or “I, too, am America.” The late Gwendolyn Brooks, a Chicagoan and the Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry in 1950, might have chimed in with “Speech to the Young,” a poem about one manner of resisting and what we now commonly call “self-care”:

Say to them,

say to the down-keepers,

the sun-slappers,

the self-soilers,

the harmony-hushers,

“Even if you are not ready for day

it cannot always be night.”

You will be right.

For that is the hard home-run.

Live not for battles won.

Live not for the-end-of-the-song.

Live in the along.

Looking to both living and dead poets for words of inspiration and guidance is now part of my living “in the along,” for however many years this particular “night” lasts.

More here.

The intolerance of the left

Thurmond-west-virginiaThomas Frank at The Guardian:

Liberal Americans like to think we know the answer to a lot of things – including why those who live outside liberal bubbles chose Donald Trumpover Hillary Clinton.

Small-town people, we liberals think, are Republican people. At their best, they are pious, respectful, and conservative; at their worst they are smug and self-righteous, small-minded and yet capable of broad prejudice. People in the hinterlands, we think, are just different: all the adults are church-going puritans with a neatness obsession, and all the kids long to escape and finally be themselves.

But there’s another way of looking at it, and it is just this: small towns are dying.

Donald Trump doesn’t really reflect the moral values of middle America. He is a consummate city slicker, a soft-handed, foul-mouthed toff who lives in a 58-story building and has been identified with New York City excess his entire life. But people in rural areas are desperate these days. Many of them chose Trump, despite his vulgarity and his big-city ways, because he promised to make them “great again”.

Watching movies won’t help you to understand this. You need to see the thing itself. And what you will discover, should you choose to undertake this mission in the part of the midwest where I come from, is this: ruination, unless the town you choose to visit has a college or a hospital or a prison in it.

more here.

How Slaves Reacted to Their Appraisals: Traumatic U.S. History

Daina Ramey Berry in AlterNet:

Average Appraised Values:
Females: $517 ($15,189 in 2014); Males: $610 ($17,934 in 2014)
Average Sale Prices:
Females: $515 ($15,131 in 2014); Males: $662 ($19,447 in 2014)

On the eve of the Civil War, an abolitionist attending the auction of 149 human souls in New Orleans, Louisiana, was intrigued by the bid caller’s excitement over a seventeen-year-old field hand named Joseph who was on the auction block. “Gentlemen,” the bid caller exclaimed, “there is a young blood, and a capital one! He is a great boy, a hand for almost every thing. Besides, he is the best dancer in the whole lot, and he knows also how to pray—oh! so beautifully, you would believe he was made to be a minister! How much will you bid for him?” The opening bid for Joseph was a thousand dollars, but according to the enthusiastic auctioneer, Joseph was worth more, considering his value over time. “One thousand dollars for a boy who will be worth in three years fully twenty-five hundred dollars cash down. Who is going to bid two thousand?” the caller asked his audience. As the price for Joseph increased to $1,400, each interested party eagerly made eye contact with the bid caller. Standing on the podium with a wand in hand, he tried to increase Joseph’s price by assuring the audience that $1,400 was “too small an amount for” him. “Seventeen years only,” he added, “a strong, healthy, fine-looking, intelligent boy. Fourteen hundred and fifty dollars!… One thousand, four hundred and fifty—going! going! going! And last—gone!” As the caller slapped his hand on the platform, just like that, in less than five minutes, Joseph was sold “to the highest bidder.”

More here. (Note: At least one post throughout February will be in honor of Black History Month)

kafka, a life

StachEarly-199x300Robert Minto at Open Letters Monthly:

Kafka’s swimming is a perfect example — a small thing, it might seem, a mere recreational tributary to the torrent of a life. But Stach begins by exploring its somatic and symbolic dimensions:

Swimming is an archaic activity that taps into deep, preponderantly unconscious realms of experience. It is an exceptionally intense and multi-layered, yet easily achievable physical and mental state of being, comparable only to sexuality.

From such lyrical abstractions, Stach circles in to mention virtually every major passage in Kafka’s texts that pertains to swimming (his story about a man who wins an Olympic medal for swimming despite not knowing how to swim, passages from his letters). He speculates on the psychoanalytic explanation for Kafka’s love of floating. He briefly summarizes Kafka’s prospects for swimming-places over the course of his life. Then he continues to weave appropriate references to Kafka’s aquatic disporting through the whole of his narrative. All of this sets up the moment when Stach will address one of the most famous sentences in Kafka’s writings, a line in his journal with which he commemorated August 2, 1914: “Germany has declared war on Russia — went swimming in the afternoon.” This passage has been held up as an illustration of Kafka’s self-absorption and unworldliness. Stach touches it lightly, and merely notes why it has been over-quoted. But in the context of his tender inquiry, the reader of this biography understands at once how profound a response it was for Kafka to swim on the first day of the war. Stach lays the groundwork for such epiphanies everywhere. When you consider how long it took to write the volumes of this biography, and that they were written out of order, such an architectural achievement becomes truly remarkable.

more here.

on ‘The Sound of Music’

SoundofmusicKate Guadagnino at The Paris Review:

The Sound of Music hasn’t tarnished over time; it was always dated, always reviled by the learned. Rumor has it that Pauline Kael was fired from McCall’s for her withering review of it (“the sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat”) and that Joan Didion was fired from Vogue for hers, which described it as “more embarrassing than most, if only because of its suggestion that history need not happen to people … Just whistle a happy tune, and leave the Anschluss behind.”

She’s right that the film hints at the limits of art’s power in the face of real danger. “Believe me,” Billy Wilder said at an industry party when he heard of Fox’s production plans, “no musical with swastikas in it will ever be a success!” Of course he was wrong—this was three years before The Producers—though the film might have contained more swastikas than it does. Before Robert Wise could be convinced to sign on, William Wyler was meant to direct. He’d lost relatives in concentration camps and was angling to add a military scene showing tanks decimating Salzburg. Instead, the film treats Nazism as little more than a vague threat to the Austrian aristocracy. At the same time, it capitalizes on a villain everyone can get behind, rendering the Third Reich a least favorite thing. Who among us doesn’t love siblings, lakeside villas, and grandma-chic floral prints—and who wouldn’t root for a Nazi-sympathizing boyfriend to get dumped?

more here.