Amitava Kumar’s latest novel explores the intersection of the sexual and the political

Joanna Biggs in The New Yorker:

You look at a dark immigrant in that long line at JFK,” Kailash, the protagonist of Amitava Kumar’s new nonfiction novel, “Immigrant, Montana” (Knopf), says of his fellow New Yorkers. “You look at him and think that he wants your job and not that he just wants to get laid.” In 1990, Kailash arrives in New York City from the eastern-Indian city of Ara to study literature; sex for him has gone only as far as a fleeting topless shot at the movies before the censor’s cut. John Donne, in “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” imagined his lover’s body as his America, awaiting discovery; Kailash is hopeful that America the beautiful can be explored through its women’s bodies.

Getting laid has always been a way that outsiders have attempted to conquer (and to write about) the big city, from Tom Jones to Frédéric Moreau to Alexander Portnoy. Kumar himself arrived at Syracuse University in the late eighties from Delhi via Ara; he is now a professor at Vassar and has written six books of nonfiction, one of poetry, and a previous novel. The new book falls between genres. Its aim is not to tell a story, exactly, but to create a portrait of a mind moving uneasily between a new, chosen culture and the one left behind. Kailash’s journey toward sexual integration in the West is cast (to quote the author’s note) as “a work of fiction as well as nonfiction, an in-between novel by an in-between writer,” complete with multiple epigraphs, pictures, footnotes academic and digressive, and both pop-cultural and literary-theoretical references. So the form of “Immigrant, Montana” calls to mind works by Teju Cole (to whom the book is dedicated), Sheila Heti, and Ben Lerner. Can we believe in the immigrant who happens to write in the hippest, Brooklyniest form going? What sort of outsider knows the rules so preternaturally well?

More here.

Scientists, Stop Thinking Explaining Science Will Fix Things

Tim Requarth in Slate:

If you consider yourself to have even a passing familiarity with science, you likely find yourself in a state of disbelief as the president of the United States calls climate scientists “hoaxsters” and pushes conspiracy theories about vaccines. The Trump administration seems practically allergic to evidence. And it’s not just Trump—plenty of people across the political spectrum hold bizarre and inaccurate ideas about science, from climate change and vaccines to guns and genetically modified organisms.

If you are a scientist, this disregard for evidence probably drives you crazy. So what do you do about it?

It seems many scientists would take matters into their own hands by learning how to better communicate their subject to the masses. I’ve taught science communication at Columbia University and New York University, and I’ve run an international network of workshops for scientists and writers for nearly a decade. I’ve always had a handful of intrepid graduate students, but now, fueled by the Trump administration’s Etch A Sketch relationship to facts, record numbers of scientists are setting aside the pipette for the pen. Across the country, science communication and advocacy groups report upticks in interest. Many scientists hope that by doing a better job of explaining science, they can move the needle toward scientific consensus on politically charged issues. As recent studies from Michigan State University found, scientists’ top reason for engaging the public is to inform and defend science from misinformation.

It’s an admirable goal, but almost certainly destined to fail.

More here.

Actually, Republicans Do Believe in Climate Change

Leaf Van Boven and David Sherman in the New York Times:

It is widely believed that most Republicans are skeptical about human-caused climate change. But is this belief correct?

In 2014 and 2016, we conducted two national surveys of more than 2,000 respondents on the issue of climate change. We found that most Republicans agreed that climate change is happening, threatens humans and is caused by human activity — and that reducing carbon emissions would mitigate the problem.

To be sure, Democrats agreed more strongly than Republicans did that climate change is a concerning reality. And among climate skeptics there were more Republicans than Democrats. Nevertheless, most Republicans were in basic agreement with most Democrats and independents on this issue.

This raises a question: If Democrats and Republicans agree about climate change, why do they disagree about climate policy?

More here.

How Science and Myth Collide in Water

Philip Ball at Lapham’s Quarterly:

Water attracts trouble. Time and again this ubiquitous and vital substance becomes the subject of controversial claims. The latest is about “raw” or “live” water, consumed directly from natural springs with no treatment or purification.

It’s largely a Silicon Valley thing. About thirty dollars will buy you five gallons from the Oregon-based company Live Water.

Sure, raw water might be full of other stuff like bacteria, algae, and minerals. But these, say devotees, are good for us—unlike the antimicrobial agents and additives in tap water or the plastic additives leached into bottled water. Fluoride, added to tap water for dental health, has a particularly long history of health scares and conspiracy theories; in the 1950s some said fluoridation was a communist plot to undermine the health of Americans. Raw-water advocates contend that fluoride is neurotoxic even at very low levels, although there’s no evidence of that.

more here.

Various Films

A. S. Hamrah at n+1:

To that end, First Reformed is daring and unrelenting—it searches for and pinpoints real harm. Ten people walked out of the theater where I saw it, most of them Schrader’s age. I think they left because the film’s intensity was too much in a world where they had the option of seeing Book Club at a theater down the street.

Most people at the screening were younger, and they stayed put for an ending that includes a glass of Drano and a barbed wire vest. As I’ve tried to convey, the film is bleak. But contrary to what we’re told, I don’t think audiences want upbeat films in bad times. Hollywood takes advantage of bad times by telling people that’s what they want, because that’s what they were going to make anyway.

more here.

In Persan

 at the LRB:

Sunday, late July: the small suburban towns of Persan and Beaumont-sur-l’Oise are almost empty. Persan, the last stop on the H line, is half an hour from the Gare du Nord, through a landscape of woodland and fields. It was a beautiful day. A man was fishing by the banks of the Oise; two others were chatting in front of a hairdresser’s salon. The day before, thousands of people from Paris and the banlieues had filled the streets; some had arrived by bus from further afield, among them party leaders from the left-wing NPA and La France Insoumise, anti-racist activists, relatives of people who had been killed by the police, girls wearing T-shirts saying ‘Justice for Adama’ or ‘Justice for Gaye’, and a man with a placard: ‘The State protects Benallas, we want to save Adamas.’

Adama Traoré died two years ago in police custody in Beaumont-sur-Oise. His family and friends had organised the march to demand justice – yet again – after his death.

more here.

Tuesday Poem

Osmosis: in which molecules of a solvent pass through
a membrane to achieve equilibrium.


Example: I place my hand in a pool of salt.
Some stays. Some seeps into my skin.
Everything goes exactly where it’s supposed to.

Example: Prudencia Martín Gómez leaves Guatemala at 18
to surprise her husband in California.
Like most beings, most of Prudencia’s body is water.

When Prudencia is found
60 miles from the US-Mexico border,
a pile of clothes, limbs, and a puddle of wet sand,
is she the corpse?
or was she
the water?

If Prudencia is water,
and the desert is
a ground, then Prudencia went
exactly where she was supposed to.

If migration is a pipe
and employment is a sponge,
then Prudencia went
exactly where she was supposed to.

Some would like to build a wall,
and water always seeps through,
but much does not.

Most days, water dries in the bed of a pick-up truck
clutching a seven-year-old daughter.

Read more »

‘Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes’ wonderfully explores the links of literary influence

Steve Donoghue in The Christian Science Monitor:

On the surface, the new book by Julie Hedgepeth Williams, Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes, is the story of the long and winding genesis of literary culture in the post-Civil War American South. One of the “not-so-ordinary Joes” referred to in the title is, after all, Joel Chandler Harris (whose childhood nickname was Joe), author of the Uncle Remus stories that sold astoundingly well both in postwar America and around the world and influenced an entire generation of writers, playing a large role in creating a distinctive Southern literary tradition. But in addition to that surface story, there’s also a deeper narrative thread winding its way through “Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes,” a narrative about the unpredictable, often byzantine connections that thread their way from one literary generation to another. In this case, Williams quite delightfully traces this thread through the same name, linking two generations of 19th-century American Southerners with a namesake from 18th-century England, a man who never knew anything about either of them or about the American South itself.

That 18th-century figure is the most famous of the book’s trio: Joseph Addison, the essayist and playwright who in 1711 founded The Spectator magazine with his long-time friend and collaborator Richard Steele and quickly began establishing it as a high-water standard of witty and incisive English prose, a revelation of daily style and interest whose ambition was matched and ultimately exceeded by its reach in the literary world. About the ambition, Williams is as charmingly informal when dealing with this legendary figure in English letters as she is with her two other subjects. “Addison was ready to turn the tables and take over as the genius behind the new paper, which he named The Spectator,she writes. “Dick [Steele] would still be involved, and it would take both of them – the ambition of it! – because whereas The Tatler had been published three times a week, The Spectator would come out daily.” It takes a good deal of quiet confidence in your ability as a storyteller to throw in an exclamation like that “the ambition of it!” – and that ability is in evidence on every page of the book.

More here.

The Re-Origin of Species

Steven Poole in The Guardian:

It’s harder than you might think to make a dinosaur. In Jurassic Parkthey do it by extracting a full set of dinosaur DNA from a mosquito preserved in amber, and then cloning it. But DNA degrades over time, and to date none has been found in a prehistoric mosquito or a dinosaur fossil. The more realistic prospect is to take a live dinosaur you have lying around already: a bird. Modern birds are considered a surviving line of theropod dinosaurs, closely related to the T rex and velociraptor. (Just look at their feet: “theropod” means “beast-footed”.) By tinkering with how a bird embryo develops, you can silence some of its modern adaptations and let the older genetic instructions take over. Enterprising researchers have already made a chicken with a snout instead of a beak.

This obviously adds to the general merriment of the world, and will eventually kickstart a roaring trade in exotic quasi-Jurassic pets. But there are a surprising number of other projects that aim to bring back more recently vanished wild animals, from the woolly mammoth to the Pyrenean ibex. Advances in gene-editing technology promise to make “de‑extinction” a potentially viable enterprise, but what exactly is the point? To answer this question, the Swedish science journalist Torill Kornfeldt has travelled to meet the researchers involved for this excellent book, written with a deceptively light touch (in Fiona Graham’s translation), that raises a number of deep questions and paradoxes about our relationship with nature.

More here.

On Critical Thinking

by Gerald Dworkin

Having taught Philosophy for 46 years in three Universities—two State and one private—and never taught a Critical Thinking course one might have some questions about my choice of topic. My response is two-fold. First, there is a sense in which no matter what the topic of a particular course philosophy is always about critical thinking. One’s lectures are intended to model careful, reflective thought, sensitive to both the considerations favoring one’s views as well as the strongest objections. Second, because it is always going to be essential to use and define essential logical terminology.

So in the first week of my course on BioEthics I would discuss what is an argument, the difference between a valid and a sound argument, (illustrating this with the offer to produce 100 valid arguments for the existence of GOD), what is wrong with circular arguments, what it REALLY means to “beg the question”.

I also discuss the difference between refuting an objection to your claim and presenting an argument proving the claim.

But the focus of my class is on particular ethical issues—cloning, genetic engineering, informed consent, etc. It is not on the broader issue of the various ways that our search for the truth can flounder, or be led astray, or be hijacked.

We need courses devoted to such matters because we are living in a time where the dangers to informed and rational thought are not so much bad or sloppy thought but a poisoning of the flow of reliable information. It is not the transition from premises to conclusion that is often at fault but the premises themselves. Philosophers who teach Critical Thinking courses need to adjust their syllabi to take this into account. Read more »


by Joan Harvey

Fire flares up behind the town of Basalt, Colorado. Photo by Mark Harvey.

When the bobbling, babbling, unhinged conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, warned of a second Civil War starting on the 4th of July, most of us laughed, people marked themselves “Safe,” and we enjoyed the holiday. But one thing we’ve learned in these times is that both the Civil War and WWII are still underway. Not the second Civil War, but a continuation of the first. While both wars seemed to have had clear endings, in reality they continue, but until now mostly buried underground. How could we have been so oblivious? So complacent? I think of Freud and the unconscious, Jung and the shadow. Psycho-history.

Our country is mentally ill.

Politicians, it seems, think the answer is in being led by the nose by the Russian government. Oh, that and arming toddlers.

But America is changing. Across the West on the 4th of July this year fireworks displays were cancelled. Fire danger was too high. Every year is like this now. And every year, we too act mentally ill, behaving as if this year were aberrant. We get through fire season crossing our fingers, a fire season that extends for more months every year. Every year we hope a fire won’t burn too close to us, we hope it won’t force us out, we hope it won’t destroy our homes. Wiser politicians talk of turning to green energy to slow climate change, while the others push for more fossil fuel development. But no one addresses the fact that we’re past the tipping point. Even if we’re able to slow climate change, it’s still too late. Every year we burn. Then the floods come to finish the job. Read more »

The Bible Tells Me So

by Shawn Crawford

For a Baptist, the Bible exists like gravity. Not believing in gravity will not change the outcome if you step off a building; not believing the Bible will not change the consequences if you ignore its precepts and commands. Both are laws of nature, fixed and unchanging.

To really understand what it means to be Baptist, you must understand the unique place the Bible holds in every facet of life. The central reality of existence is not God but rather the words he left behind to guide our decisions, our relationships, and our behavior. Baptists create a world that revolves around The Book to a degree that can easily be termed idolatry. In a religion that shuns all iconography, the Bible becomes the one object that can be revered. But not because it symbolizes the presence of God’s word among us: it is God’s Word, infallible and unchangeable. The Southern Baptist statement of beliefs, The Baptist Faith and Message, begins with the Bible, not God. It states in part, “[The Bible] has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.”

The close reading of scripture allowed you to extract the meaning God intended. That meaning could be discovered, not interpreted, and it could be agreed upon and then applied to how you lived your daily life: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and light unto my path” (Psalm 119.105). The Book of Psalms is in the middle of the Bible, and can best be translated “praises” or “songs” from the Hebrew. Psalm 119 is the longest chapter of the Bible, clocking in at 176 verses. Writers of Psalms often used an acrostic method employing the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Psalm 119 is a tour de force, with each of eight verses in a stanza opening with the same letter, moving through all twenty-two letters of the alphabet.

As you might have guessed, I spent a lot of time with the Bible. Read more »

Monday Poem

Global Warming Facts For the Obtuse


if I’m standing in a house engulfed in flames
it can still be 10 below in the freezer
for a while

if it’s 10 below in New England in December
but the mean temperature of the planet
continues to rise  it means
that in New England on the planet in December
it’s like being in an ice-maker in a blazing house
for a while

Jim Culleny

Mom Goes Shopping for a Grave

by Samia Altaf

Six months before she died, Saleema, my 85-year-old mother, still in relatively good health – she did have breast cancer and Hepatitis-C, the one in remission, the other inactive – became obsessed with the quality of her grave.

“You will throw my corpse on a rubbish heap for all I know,” she said after a long and difficult phone conversation with her favorite son, “for you all do not care about my wishes.”

“We do care mom and I will not throw your corpse on a rubbish heap but put it, washed and dressed for the occasion, respectfully and lovingly, in a grave”.

“Ah! But what kind of a grave? And where? That is the question”.

“Unfortunately, I am not Shah Jehan. I have a normal grave in mind but you tell me the kind you want, and I shall follow your instructions.”

Little did I know how limited our choices were. Graveyards in Lahore, where Mom lived, and eventually died, are a disorganized mess with a terrible shortage of space. I Googled and found a list that included the Taxali Gate graveyard, the Mominpura graveyard, Miani Sahib, and Gora Qabristan. Read more »

The Search for Meaning in Jordan B. Peterson

by Joseph Shieber

Few topics have captured the attention of the internet literati more than the topic of Jordan B. Peterson. Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, parlayed a protest against Canada’s transgender anti-discrimination protections, such as Federal Bill C-16, into a hugely popular YouTube channel, Patreon site, and bestselling book.

However, after a recent Independent interview with Sam Harris included some of Harris’s strongly worded reservations about Peterson’s positions, perhaps it is finally time to begin to prepare for an internet without near-daily references to Peterson.

If you’re like me, you might think this time is already overdue. Believe me, I get it. It’s hard not to get frustrated at the thought that we haven’t already passed the point of Peak Peterson. That’s the stage when all of the think pieces, discussion notes, and book reviews will begin to taper off, and we can begin to wring our hands about the inexplicable popularity of the next (pseudo-) intellectual dazzler who holds out the promise of providing heft to the thought behind free speech concern trolls, incels, misogynists, or members of the alt-right.

Of course, that we’ve spent so much time doing this with Jordan Peterson is one aspect of his genius. His writing allows his defenders to deny that the darker reaches of his appeal actually speak to Peterson’s own ideas. He’s not a free speech concern troll, but a brave defender of untrammeled thought against government intrusion. He’s not a misogynist; he’s simply following the best science on evolutionary and personality psychology where it leads. He doesn’t support the alt-right, though he is incisive enough to understand its roots deep in our psyche.

In short, Peterson’s appeal is at least in part that his writing is tailor-made for these tribal times. Read more »

Privacy Is The Right To Be Mysterious. Democracy Depends On It

by Thomas R. Wells

At the heart of liberalism is the idea of personal sovereignty. There is some domain of thought and feeling that is essentially private, for which we are not answerable to others because it is no one else’s proper business.

Privacy is the metaright that guarantees this right to think our way to our own decisions in our life, whether that be how to follow our god, or what to make of our sexual inclinations, or how to grieve for someone we have lost. It prevents others demanding justifications for our every thought and feeling by veiling them from their view. It is the right to be mysterious to others.

More specifically, privacy is the right to choose how we are known and by whom. For example, we may confide the details of an embarrassing problem with a particular friend – but not just any friend and certainly not a stranger. We do so because of the mutually trusting, caring relationship we have with that person. They may still criticize us for our faults, but not like a stranger would, whose knowledge of us lacks that special relational context. A friend’s criticism could actually help us do better. And if it doesn’t, they will respect our confidence. They won’t turn around and ‘share’ it with all the people who might find it interesting.

Of course, the right to control how you are known is not unlimited. You can’t control exactly what people know about you and you certainly can’t control what they make of it. And like other rights, such as speech or property, it may be curtailed in particular cases to protect other rights held by other people. For example, a convicted fraudster should not have the right to hide that fact from prospective business partners. On the other hand, his neighbours don’t have such a need to know. And even his business partners don’t need to know his sexuality or religion. The fact that people are curious enough about such things that they will ask google, and that google can sell more advertising by telling them, is not enough to justify disrespecting people’s privacy.

These days lots of people are talking about the value of privacy and its limits in the internet age. But few note its political significance. Read more »


by Holly Case and Lexi Lerner

What follows is part of a collaborative project between a historian and a student of medicine called “The Temperature of Our Time.” In forming diagnoses, historians and doctors gather what Carlo Ginzburg has called “small insights”—clues drawn from “concrete experience”—to expose the invisible: a forensic assessment of condition, the origins of an idiopathic illness, the trajectory of an idea through time. Taking the temperature of our time means reading vital signs and symptoms around a fixed theme or metaphor—in this case, the circus.


In its most basic iteration, a circus is a ring or circle. The Circus Maximus in Ancient Rome was an oval-shaped track used for chariot races. Presbyterian minister Conrad Hyers writes that the modern circus has a “willingness to encompass and make use of the whole human spectrum”:

The costumed beauty rides on the lumbering beast or walks hand in hand with the ugly dwarf. The graceful trapeze artist soars high above the stumbling imitations of the clown in the ring below. Nothing and no one seem to stand outside this circumference, this circus.


From a 1930 program for Krone Circus in Vienna: a Roman-style chariot race, gladiator games, Eskimos and polar bears, a parade of twenty elephants, springing Arabs, “The Maharadja’s Grand Entrance,” an “Exotic procession,” the Chinese troupe of Wong Tschio Tsching, and Cossack riders. (“No smoking. No dogs allowed.”)


The circus often starts by breaking its own rules. Paul Bouissac, a semiotician at the circus, explains. A master juggler is poised to begin the opening act, but he is interrupted by a clown who appears among the audience–introducing himself, fumbling, stealing a child’s popcorn, all the while defying the warnings and threats of the Master of Ceremonies. “From the beginning,” writes Bouissac, “as a kind of foundational gesture, this clown has defined himself as a rule breaker.”

He has mocked good manners. He has transgressed even the circus code of which he is a part. But his tricks have made people happy. He has denounced the arbitrariness of authority. When the Master of Ceremonies wants to throw him out of the ring, the audience spontaneously boos…

Eventually, the clown is removed and the juggler can begin his act. “At the end,” Bouissac concludes, “the triumph of the juggling hero will be both physical and social.” But this satisfying resolution can only take place after the clown has created a problem. The juggler’s act is only triumphant within “the framing provided by the clown.” Read more »

Beauty is Neither Harmony Nor Symmetry

by Dwight Furrow

Beauty has long been understood as the highest form of aesthetic praise sharing space with goodness, truth, and justice as a source of ultimate value. But in recent decades, despite calls for its revival, beauty has been treated as the ugly stepchild banished by an art world seeking forms of expression that capture the seedier side of human existence. It is a sad state of affairs when the highest form of aesthetic praise is dragged through the mud. Might the problem be that beauty from the beginning has been misunderstood?

The Ancient Greeks were the first to define beauty. Using the perfection of geometrical bodies as a paradigm, symmetrical, perfectly proportioned objects connected the world of finite human beings to the infinite, divine world. In the Symposium, Plato has Diotima regale Socrates with stories of the soul ascending towards beauty, driven by Eros, the god of love, leading from the sensible world to the intelligible world and ultimately the discovery of Beauty in itself. In theory, beauty could be extracted from objects via reason if we were sufficiently expert geometers.  Beauty is a concept, a ratio, a specific proportion between parts which gives us insight into the ideal structure of the cosmos, a manifestation of something eternal. The neo-Platonists emphasized that such an ideal harmony must exhibit unity, all difference and multiplicity swallowed by an intelligible whole, a state of pure integration governed by a principle that organizes the elements and to which the elements must conform.

However, conceptually, these notions of perfect symmetry, unity, and harmony are problematic. Read more »